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How to Get Help When You Can't Afford to Pay Medical Bills

In today’s world, where healthcare costs are continually rising, many people find themselves overwhelmed by medical bills. Whether it’s due to an unexpected illness, a chronic health condition, or high deductibles and co-pays, the financial burden of medical care can be daunting.

This guide, “How to Get Help When You Can’t Afford to Pay Medical Bills,” is designed to offer practical advice and actionable steps for those struggling to manage their healthcare expenses.

From understanding your insurance coverage and seeking financial assistance programs to navigating legal protections and negotiating with healthcare providers, this comprehensive guide aims to empower you with knowledge and resources to effectively tackle your medical bills.


 Let’s explore the various avenues available to ease the financial strain of healthcare costs and find the support you need during challenging times.

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Understanding Your Bills: The Key to Financial Management

When faced with high medical bills, the first step is to understand them. Begin by requesting an itemized bill from your medical provider or hospital.

This detailed statement lists all services provided, often with CPT codes, which you can use to verify the accuracy of the charges. There have been instances of hospitals charging for unnecessary services, like a pregnancy test for a menopausal woman.

Ensure you know what you are paying for. Additionally, review your Explanation of Benefits (EOB) from your health insurance company. It details what’s covered and what you owe.

This step is crucial, especially if you’re dealing with out-of-network providers or prescription drugs that might significantly increase your total expenses.

Dealing with Insurance: Your First Line of Defense Against High cost

Insurance coverage is your first and most crucial line of defense against high healthcare costs. To make the most of this defense, it’s essential to regularly review and update your health plan.


 Understanding the specifics of your coverage, including deductibles, co-pays, and out-of-pocket maximums, can significantly influence your financial planning for healthcare expenses.

Insurance Navigation

Reading through a detailed healthcare package can be a lot to handle. If you’re not up for going through all that information, just give your insurance company a call. 


They’re there to help you understand your coverage. For example, I know that my plan includes a free annual health check-up. This includes both internal medicine and gynecological exams, so I make sure to use this benefit. 


However, my co-pay is higher when I visit specialists, anyone who’s not my primary doctor.

One common issue many face is not fully grasping the extent of their insurance coverage. 


For instance, certain procedures or treatments might require pre-authorization from your health insurance company to ensure they are covered. 


Failing to obtain this authorization can lead to unexpected expenses


Always check with your insurer before undergoing any significant medical procedure. 


While investigating, find out the cost of the procedure, how much your insurance will cover, and what your personal expense will be.

In addition, staying within your insurance network is vital. Out-of-network charges can be substantially higher, and in some cases, may not be covered at all.  


Always verify whether the healthcare provider you’re considering is in-network. This is especially important for services like laboratory work, which might be sent to out-of-network labs without your knowledge.

For example, let’s say you need a specific blood test. If you go to a lab that is within your insurance network, the cost might be $100, and your insurance covers 80% of in-network lab work. 


This means you would only pay $20 out of pocket. However, if you unknowingly use an out-of-network lab for the same test, the charge could be $250.

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Appeal Procedure

Another key aspect is to understand the appeals process of your insurance company. If a claim is denied, you have the right to appeal the decision. 


Often, denials are due to simple errors in coding or misunderstandings about the necessity of a procedure. 


A successful appeal can result in the insurance company covering a previously denied claim, significantly reducing your financial burden.

It’s also wise to be proactive about preventive care. Many health insurance plans cover preventive services like vaccinations, screenings, and annual check-ups at no extra cost. 

Utilizing these services can help catch health issues early, potentially avoiding more expensive treatments down the line.

I told a friend of mine who was afraid to get a mammogram that it’s better to get it and have peace of mind than to skip it, potentially have cancer, and face much higher treatment costs later.


Lastly, keep all records of your medical bills and insurance communications. In cases of discrepancies or disputes, having detailed records can be immensely helpful. 

It demonstrates your diligence in understanding and managing your healthcare expenses, which can be beneficial during negotiations with your health insurance company or medical provider.

In summary, effectively managing your health insurance involves understanding your coverage in detail, staying within your network, being prepared for the appeals process, taking advantage of preventive care, and meticulously documenting all interactions and bills. This proactive approach can help safeguard against high medical bills and ensure you make the most out of your health insurance benefits.

Financial Assistance Programs: A Ray of Hope for Unpaid Bills

Financial assistance programs serve as a vital lifeline for those grappling with medical expenses amidst financial hardship. 


The scope of these programs extends beyond just non-profit hospitals; many healthcare providers, including clinics and specialized medical facilities, also offer various forms of aid.

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Alternative Ways to Pay Medical Bills

Community Clinics:

  • Fact: Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) provide primary care services at reduced costs based on income.
  • Detail: These clinics, which include Community Health Centers, offer services on a sliding fee scale, ensuring that those with lower incomes pay less. They provide essential services such as general health care, dental care, mental health services, and preventive screenings. To find a clinic near you, visit the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) website.


  • Fact: Medicaid covers over 80 million low-income Americans, including children, pregnant women, seniors, and people with disabilities.
  • Detail: Medicaid is a state and federal program that provides health coverage to eligible low-income individuals. Eligibility varies by state, but typically includes low-income adults, children, pregnant women, elderly adults, and people with disabilities. Apply online through your state’s Medicaid website or visit a local office for assistance.

Charity Care:

  • Fact: Many hospitals have charity care programs that provide free or reduced-cost care to patients who can’t afford to pay.
  • Detail: Charity care policies differ by hospital, but generally, you need to apply and demonstrate financial need. Hospitals often have social workers or financial counselors who can guide you through the application process. It’s important to ask for charity care before receiving services if possible, but you can also apply after receiving care.

Prescription Assistance:

  • Fact: Programs like NeedyMeds and GoodRx help patients save up to 80% on prescription drugs.
  • Detail: NeedyMeds offers a database of assistance programs provided by pharmaceutical companies, state programs, and nonprofit organizations. GoodRx provides coupons and discount cards that can be used at pharmacies to reduce the cost of medications. Additionally, many pharmaceutical companies have patient assistance programs (PAPs) that offer free or discounted medications to those in need.


  • Fact: According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 64% of patients who negotiated their medical bills received a lower bill.
  • Detail: When negotiating, it’s helpful to have a detailed itemized bill and research the average cost of the services you received. You can request a reduction in fees, especially if you are uninsured or facing financial hardship. Some hospitals and providers are willing to reduce bills significantly if you can pay a portion of the amount upfront.

Payment Plans:

  • Fact: Many healthcare providers offer interest-free payment plans, allowing patients to pay their bills in manageable monthly installments.
  • Detail: Payment plans can ease the financial burden by spreading the cost over several months or even years. Contact the billing department of your healthcare provider to set up a plan. Make sure to get the terms in writing, including the monthly payment amount, due date, and any potential fees for late payments.

Health Insurance Marketplace:

  • Fact: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace offers subsidized health insurance plans based on income, with open enrollment typically starting in November.
  • Detail: The Health Insurance Marketplace provides a variety of plans with different levels of coverage and cost. Subsidies are available to lower the cost of premiums for those who qualify. Special enrollment periods are also available for those who experience qualifying life events, such as losing other coverage, moving, or having a baby. Visit to explore your options and apply.

Nonprofit Organizations:

  • Fact: Organizations like the Patient Advocate Foundation and HealthWell Foundation provide financial assistance to cover medical expenses for patients with specific diseases or conditions.
  • Detail: Nonprofits often have specific eligibility criteria based on income, diagnosis, and other factors. They can assist with copayments, insurance premiums, travel expenses, and other medical costs. Research organizations related to your health condition and apply directly through their websites for assistance.

Medical Billing Advocates:

  • Fact: Medical billing advocates can help reduce your medical bills by identifying errors, negotiating with providers, and finding savings.
  • Detail: Billing advocates review your medical bills for errors such as duplicate charges, incorrect coding, and overcharges. They negotiate with healthcare providers on your behalf to reduce the total amount owed. Some advocates charge a fee, which may be a percentage of the amount they save you, while others offer their services for free or on a sliding scale.


  • Fact: Platforms like GoFundMe have raised over $9 billion for medical expenses, showing the power of community support.
  • Detail: Crowdfunding involves creating a campaign on platforms like GoFundMe, where you share your story and financial needs. Friends, family, and even strangers can donate money to help cover your medical expenses. Be transparent about your situation and provide regular updates to keep donors engaged. Promote your campaign through social media and other channels to reach a wider audience.

Program Diversity

One key aspect to understand about these programs is their diversity. They range from complete bill forgiveness to substantial discounts or sliding scale fees based on your income and financial situation. 


For instance, if you have a low income or are underinsured, these programs could significantly reduce your medical bills, making them more manageable.  


Sometimes if you pay your bill quick, the price will be reduced as an incentive. 

It’s important to note that each medical facility has its own criteria for assistance. While some may offer help based on income alone, others might consider factors like family size, financial assets, or the severity of your medical condition. 


Therefore, it’s crucial to gather all necessary documentation, such as proof of income, tax returns, and information about your financial obligations, before applying.

Active Inquiry

Moreover, these assistance programs aren’t always widely advertised. You may need to actively inquire about them. 


Start by contacting the billing office or patient financial services at the hospital or healthcare provider where you received care. 


They can provide detailed information on available programs and guide you through the application process.

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External Resources

In addition to hospital-based programs, there are also external resources such as non-profit organizations and patient advocacy groups that offer financial aid or guidance on managing medical debts. 


They can provide additional support, like helping you navigate the application process or even intervening on your behalf to negotiate with medical providers. Some of these organizations will be listed at the end of this article. 

For those concerned about their eligibility for such programs, it’s important to remember that financial assistance isn’t solely for the uninsured. 


Even if you have health insurance, you may still qualify if your medical expenses are disproportionate to your income.

Lastly, some hospitals and healthcare providers offer retroactive assistance. 


This means if you’ve already incurred medical bills, you might still be eligible for financial help. 


It’s never too late to ask and potentially receive support that could alleviate your financial burden.

Financial assistance programs are a crucial resource for those struggling with medical bills. They offer a range of options tailored to different financial situations, providing a much-needed safety net. 


Don’t hesitate to explore these avenues — they could be the key to overcoming financial obstacles created by healthcare costs.

Negotiating Your Medical Bills

A Smart Move negotiating your medical bills can lead to lower amounts due. You can do this yourself or seek help from medical billing advocates. 


These professionals are experienced in negotiating with hospitals and medical offices. They understand the intricacies of healthcare costs and can help reduce the full amount you owe.

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Payment Plans: Easing the Burden with Monthly Payments

If you can’t pay the full amount immediately, ask about a repayment plan. Many medical providers offer low-interest or no-interest payment plans, allowing you to make manageable monthly payments. 


I had to do that with several hospital bills.  This option can prevent your unpaid medical bills from going to a collection agency and affecting your credit score.

Understanding Legal Protections: The No Surprises Act and More

The legal framework surrounding medical billing in the United States is designed to protect consumers from excessive and unexpected healthcare costs.


 Understanding these laws is not just about staying informed; it’s about empowering yourself to fight against unjust medical bills.

Healthcare Protection

The No Surprises Act, implemented in 2022, is a significant federal law that protects patients from surprise medical bills. This act specifically targets bills from out-of-network providers that you didn’t choose or weren’t aware of. 


For example, if you have surgery at an in-network hospital but the anesthesiologist is out-of-network, the No Surprises Act could protect you from being charged more than the in-network rate.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) also plays a crucial role in patient financial protection. 


Among its many provisions, the ACA limits the amount that can be charged for out-of-pocket expenses and prevents insurance companies from setting lifetime limits on coverage. 


This means that for people with chronic or long-term medical conditions, the financial burden is significantly reduced.

Enhanced Safeguards

State laws can also offer additional protections. Many states have their own regulations that go beyond federal laws, offering more comprehensive protections against unfair billing practices. 


These can include tighter restrictions on billing for out-of-network care or more stringent requirements for billing transparency.

It’s also important to be aware of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This agency offers guidance and assistance in dealing with various types of debt, including medical debt. 


They can provide resources and information on how to dispute unfair charges and protect your credit score from the negative impact of medical debt.

Another aspect to consider is the right to an itemized bill. Federal law requires healthcare providers to furnish a detailed bill upon request. 


This is a crucial tool in disputing charges, as it allows you to see exactly what services you are being charged for and whether there are any errors or overcharges. 


 I was able to get charges dropped on a bill because the hospital failed to send me an itemized list. 

Affordable Care

In addition to these protections, some states have laws that require hospitals to provide care at a reduced cost or for free to low-income individuals. 


If you’re struggling with hospital bills, it’s worth researching the laws in your state to see if you qualify for such assistance.

Finally, it’s crucial to be proactive. If you believe a bill is incorrect or unfairly high, don’t hesitate to dispute it. 


Contact the healthcare provider’s billing department, your insurance company, and legal authorities if necessary. Understanding and utilizing these legal protections can make a significant difference in managing and reducing your healthcare expenses.

Avoiding Debt Collectors: Keeping Your Credit Score Intact

Once medical bills go to debt collectors, they can impact your credit report and score. To avoid this, act quickly. 


Contact your medical provider or the hospital’s billing office as soon as you realize you can’t afford the bills. Open communication can prevent your bills from being sent to collection agencies.

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Personal Loans and Medical Credit Cards: Use with Caution

Some people consider personal loans or medical credit cards to pay off large medical bills. While these can offer temporary relief, be mindful of interest rates and terms. They’re best used as a last resort due to the potential financial strain they can cause.

Utilizing Patient Advocates

Patient advocates can help navigate the complex world of medical billing, especially for large hospital stays or for those with chronic medical conditions. 


These advocates understand the healthcare system and can offer invaluable assistance in dealing with health insurance companies, medical providers, and billing offices.

Prevention is Key: Plan for Medical Emergencies

Finally, it’s always a good idea to plan for potential medical emergencies. Setting aside a little money each month into a savings account specifically for medical expenses can provide a cushion, should you face unexpected healthcare costs.

You're Not Alone in This

Remember, you’re not alone in dealing with high medical bills. With the right approach, knowledge, and resources, you can navigate this challenging situation. 

Seek help, explore your options, and take proactive steps to manage and reduce your medical expenses.

List of Non-profit Organizations

Doctors without Borders

Partners in Health

Direct Relief

Project HOPE

Care International

Each of these organizations plays a significant role in providing vital medical care and support to people in need around the globe. They rely on donations, volunteers, and support from various sectors to carry out their missions.

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10 thoughts on “How to Get Help When You Can’t Afford to Pay Medical Bills”

  1. Insightful article.
    I feel that healthcare should ultimately be affordable to everyone, especially the poor, instead of being run as a profit-reaping industry.

  2. Medical bills can become overwhelming quickly. These are very helpful tips and ideas for what to do when you can’t afford to pay the bills. Payment plans are very helpful for sure.

  3. Me and my husband need special pills every day. Also, insurance and medical prices are very confusing to me. Thank you for the helpful tips.

  4. I’m not 50, but have been self-employed for over a decade. I found these tips very helpful, as the cost of insurance is astronomical for a healthy person, and financially it doesn’t make sense.

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