It may come as no surprise that many Americans are stressed about medical debt and the rise of healthcare costs. The average family health insurance premium has increased 43% in the past 10 years, according to a 2022 survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). What’s more, one-third of insured Americans are concerned about being able to afford their monthly premiums, and about four in 10 adults (41%) carry some form of medical debt.
Fortunately, there may be some options for those struggling with medical debt.
How Much Do Americans Spend on Healthcare Each Year?
Many people receive health insurance through an employer. And even though employers generally help pay for a portion of the costs, the financial burden can still be significant. A typical household spends $431 per month — or $5,177 per year — on healthcare expenses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. This includes routine things such as health insurance costs, doctor’s visits, medications, and medical supplies.
At the same time, the U.S. tends to outspend other countries when it comes to healthcare. In 2021, healthcare spending topped $4.3 trillion, or $12,914 per person, according to the latest figures available from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. That figure represents 18.3% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
How Many Americans Struggle With Medical Debt?
Despite employer-sponsored health plans covering some of the costs, some Americans struggle to pay their medical bills.
In fact, nearly 1 in 10 adults — or around 23 million people — owe at least $250 in medical bills, a 2022 KFF analysis found. Of that, 11 million people owe more than $2,000, and 3 million people owe more than $10,000.
Certain groups of people appeared to be more impacted than others. For instance, people aged 35-49 and 50-64 are more likely than other adults to report medical debt. The same goes for people in poor health and those living with a disability. And among racial and ethnic groups, a larger share of Black adults (16%) report having medical debt compared to White (9%), Hispanic (9%), and Asian American (4%) adults.
What Happens If Medical Debt Is Not Paid?
Even if you’re facing an overwhelming amount of medical debt, the worst thing to do is ignore it. Depending on the state where you live, a medical provider might charge you a late fee for bills not paid on time and may even charge interest if payments aren’t made at all.
After a few months, if medical bills go unpaid, the provider might choose to pass the debt over to a debt collection agency.
If the medical provider does decide to give the debt to a debt collection agency, the debt might immediately appear on the debtor’s credit report and affect their credit score. The debt collector will take steps to collect the bill. If the debt is not collected, the provider may take it even further and take legal action.
While U.S. laws don’t allow debtors to be imprisoned for unpaid debts, they could face another consequence, such as wage garnishment. If the case goes to court and a judge rules in favor of the medical service provider, there’s a chance the debtor’s wages could be garnished. In simple terms, this means that payment will be taken out of their paycheck and sent to the provider.
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4 Medical Debt Relief Options
While there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to help ease the financial burden of medical debt, the following ideas may be worth considering. It’s also a smart move to contact a professional before taking any action.
1. Medical Debt Payment Plans
Because healthcare services are often costly, contacting medical providers to ask if they offer payment plans might be one plan of action to consider. Some medical providers may offer payment plans to pay off debt in installments instead of paying it off all at once, which might make the debt more manageable.
2. Negotiating Medical Debt
It may feel counterintuitive or inappropriate to negotiate medical bills, but some providers actually expect it. While it may seem awkward at first, negotiating medical bills can help make them more manageable. Additionally, negotiating may even help avoid a credit score ding, or worse, getting sued.
For starters, reaching out to the provider’s billing department directly to see if negotiation is possible might be an option. Many providers have financial departments that can determine if patients qualify for discounts or reductions. Remember, when negotiating, try to be as polite as possible. But it can be helpful to be persistent, too.
Another point to remember is that providers may favor cash. So those who can afford to make a lump sum payment might consider asking if the provider offers a discount for a cash payment.
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3. Working With a Nonprofit Advocate
If the medical bills keep piling up, it may be worthwhile to consider finding a nonprofit advocate or reputable credit counseling organization that offers assistance with managing money and debts, creating a budget, and providing resources to help consumers pay off the debt that’s dogging them.
Certified counselors that have been trained to help individuals create a plan to solve financial concerns can be found through the U.S. Department of Justice. These organizations offer counseling and debt management plans and services.
One solution credit counselors may suggest is a debt management plan. These plans may help the borrowers get their debt under control.
With one type of debt management plan, the borrower makes a lump sum payment to the credit organization, and then the organization pays the creditor in installment payments. If you decide to go this route, make sure not to confuse a credit counseling nonprofit organization with a debt settlement company.
In contrast to credit counseling nonprofits, debt settlement companies are profit-driven. They negotiate with creditors to reduce the debt owed and accept a settlement — a lump sum — that’s less than the original debt. However, these companies can charge a 15% to 25% fee on top of the debt settled. While some of these companies are legitimate, consumers are cautioned to be wary of scams.
Some deceptive practices include guarantees that all of a person’s debts will be settled for a small amount of money, that debtors should stop paying their debts without explaining the consequences of such actions, or collection of fees for services before reviewing a person’s financial situation. Researching a company’s reputation can be done through the state attorney general’s office or the state consumer protection agency.
4. Using a Personal Loan
Using a credit card to pay off medical bills doesn’t help anything when you’re trying to reduce your overall debt. Taking out a personal loan could be a way to streamline multiple bills into one monthly payment.
Consolidating medical debt might include a number of benefits, but it’s important to note that it isn’t a cure-all. A loan will not erase your debt, but it could help you get a fixed monthly payment and, potentially, reduced interest rates.
It’s important to compare rates and understand how a new loan could pay off in the long run. If your monthly payment is lower because the loan term is longer, for example, it might not be a good strategy, because it means you may be making more interest payments and therefore paying more over the life of the loan.
Taking the Next Steps
If you’re steeped in medical bills, you’re hardly alone. One in 10 adults owe medical debt, with 3 million people saying they owe more than $10,000, according a 2022 analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. While dealing with the debt may not be pleasant, it’s a task you shouldn’t ignore. You may end up having to pay a late fee or interest rate on unpaid bills, or the provider could choose to pass the debt to a collections agency. This could negatively impact your credit score.
Fortunately, there are some debt relief options you may want to consider. Examples include exploring debt payment plans, negotiating the debt with your provider, enlisting the help of a nonprofit advocate, or taking out a personal loan to help pay off the bills.
If you are thinking about taking out a loan to consolidate your debt, a SoFi personal loan may be a good option for your unique financial situation. SoFi personal loans offer competitive, fixed rates and a variety of terms. Checking your rate won’t affect your credit score, and it takes just one minute.
See if a personal loan from SoFi is right for you.
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