Have Outstanding Medical Debt? You're Not Alone

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When we think about the expenses that tend to monopolize much of our money, healthcare is clearly a major one for young and older Americans alike. But while it's one thing to bemoan climbing medical costs, it's another thing to find yourself in a position where you're actually unable to pay your healthcare bills. And if that sounds like you, you're in good company.

At least 25% of Americans aged 25 to 54 have unpaid medical bills, according to new data from Care.com. The same holds true for more than 10% of seniors aged 65 to 74.

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The problem with outstanding medical bills is twofold. First, the longer it takes you to pay them, the more they might cost you in the form of interest. Outstanding healthcare costs can also damage your credit -- especially if you charge those expenses on a credit card and fail to keep up with your payments. That's why it pays to take steps to keep your medical costs to a minimum and manage them appropriately. Here's how.

1. Understand your benefits

A big reason why so many people wind up overpaying for healthcare is that they don't really understand how their health benefits work. Sometimes, all it takes is the right referral or preauthorization to spell the difference between your insurance company picking up the tab for a service or procedure and denying your claim outright. The same holds true for in-network providers -- you'll pay a lot less if you stick with them. Reading through your benefits can help you minimize your costs so that you're less likely to find yourself in the hole following a doctor visit or treatment.

2. Negotiate with providers

The amount a given provider is able to charge an insurance company might differ from the amount he or she will charge you as an individual. If you're receiving treatment for something you know isn't covered by your health plan, be vocal about it. You never know when a medical office might cut you a deal.

3. Ask for lower-cost alternatives

In an ideal world, healthcare providers would aim to provide the best service possible at the lowest reasonable cost. And while many uphold that practice, not everyone does. The next time you're faced with a costly procedure whose bill you'll be footing solo, ask your provider if a cheaper alternative exists. You might, for example, get similar results from a less costly but slightly less convenient diagnostic test than the one your doctor initially suggests, so it always pays to let your providers know that money is an issue.

4. Pursue your payment plan options

If you're faced with a medical bill you can't pay, your inclination might be to put that charge on a credit card and call it a day. In doing so, however, you risk hurting your credit by carrying that balance and costing yourself loads of interest to boot. A better bet? Ask your medical provider if a payment plan option exists. Many offices will work with you if you're dealing with a larger bill.

It's an unfortunate fact that medical debt is the No. 1 source of personal bankruptcy filings in the country. If you're behind on your medical bills, talk to your providers and ask for some leeway in paying them off in a reasonable time frame. At the same time, do what you can to lower your costs in the first place so that you're more likely to manage to pay those bills as they come due.

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