Dealing with medical bills

As the economy attempts to gain traction, many families are struggling to make ends meet. In addition, some of them face the financial and emotional stress of large medical bills.

If you find yourself in this situation, what should you do? Let’s look at some things to consider.

First, get an itemized statement of your bills and carefully check for errors. Make sure the services provided and the costs of them are correct. Contact your healthcare provider if you find errors or need clarification. Don’t hesitate to appeal any payments you think were incorrectly denied.

If you don’t have the financial resources to pay the bill, contact your physician or hospital immediately. Explain your situation and attempt to negotiate the bill or offer a reasonable payment plan before it is referred to a collection agency. If a collection agency becomes involved, this could damage your credit record.

Be careful about taking money out of your retirement accounts — IRA, 401(k), or other plan — to pay medical expenses. But if you find it necessary to withdraw funds prior to reaching age 59½, you should realize this will, except in limited circumstances, create a tax penalty. In addition, taking money out of these accounts will reduce the amount you will have for retirement.

You should use the equity in your home to pay medical bills only as a last resort. While many families have done this, you should be aware that you can lose your home if you can’t make loan payments.

Finally, you could consider asking for assistance in meeting your obligations. Depending upon your age and income level, you may qualify for assistance under the federal Medicaid program or state initiatives. Many hospitals offer free or discounted rates to patients who don’t qualify for government programs, assuming they meet certain financial criteria.

Hopefully, you won’t face catastrophic medical bills. But if you do, keep the above in mind.

Wayne Curtis, Ph.D., is on the board of directors of First United Security Bank. He may be reached by email at wc_curtis@yahoo.com.