How To Navigate Crushing Medical Debt To Move Forward With Your Life

It's no secret that the healthcare system in the United States is a tragic mess. Over 26,000 Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 die each year due to a lack of health insurance and the resulting inability to access medical care. This makes the American healthcare system a bigger threat to its own citizens than murder (via research published in The BMJ). When you're facing potentially life-altering debt just to keep your health in order, it's hard not to feel stressed, defeated, or even depressed, as reported by


Fortunately, there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage medical debt can do to your life and your mindset. You might not be able to eliminate your medical bills, but you can get to the point where you can manageably live with them. Here's how to get started on taking control of your medical debt and moving on with the rest of your life. 

Examine your statement

According to Modern Healthcare, up to 80% of medical bills contain at least one error. As soon as you receive a bill from a medical provider, sit down and examine the itemized charges listed on it. If you see a service listed that you don't recognize or understand, take action. If you have health insurance, compare the charges on the bill to the services that appear on the explanation of benefits you received from your insurance company for the visit or procedure in question. If the two don't match, contact the provider and alert them of the disparity.


Even if you don't have insurance, you shouldn't be paying for services that were billed to you in error. Check your bills for any items that are listed more than once or procedures that you don't recognize. If you spot any, call the medical provider and ask for an explanation. The worst-case scenario is that you'll have a better understanding of what you're paying for. At best, you'll get some of the charges removed or reduced. 

Apply for assistance

The vast majority of hospitals and health care providers that offer primary and urgent care services provide financial assistance to patients who qualify (via U.S. News & World Report). Many also charge steeply increased prices to patients who are uninsured, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. You can typically find information about the financial assistance programs available on the provider's website. While you might find income limits listed, don't let this dissuade you from applying. If your income is over the limit but you feel that you have pressing circumstances, such as a lack of insurance and increased prices, that keep you from being able to afford the cost of what you owe, apply anyway.


Once you've shared your story on your application, you might be approved for assistance regardless of income. If your application is approved, you'll receive either a reduction or an elimination of what you owe. If you're denied, ask for information about any available community resources for help in your area. 

Negotiate your total

Contrary to popular belief, medical bills are not non-negotiable, and you don't have to wait for the bill to be passed on to a debt collection agency before you can negotiate a lower total. Many healthcare providers will consider discounting the total amount you owe if you can pay 25% or more of your costs upfront. It may be worth it to plan ahead to borrow money from a friend or family member, work a bit of overtime, or sell some unused items in order to owe less overall. You can also look up the local cost of the procedure at Healthcare Bluebook and file a grievance with the hospital if you believe you're being billed at an excessive rate.


If your medical debt has already been sold to a collection agency, you can typically use a similar negotiation tactic to reduce what you owe. If you can come up with half or more of the total amount you owe, the agency will frequently settle the debt for that amount. It is worth noting that settling a debt for less will show up as a negative mark on your credit report. However, it will damage your credit score less than leaving the debt unpaid, as detailed by Experian

Search for community resources

If you've been denied financial assistance by a hospital or medical care provider and have not been successful at negotiating your debt, it's time to turn to outside sources. In many cases, local churches and non-profit organizations are available to help with overwhelming debt or with covering other expenses that may suffer as you struggle to make payments on your medical debt (via Free Financial Help). There are also local and national organizations available that were created and operate with the goal of helping those who suffer from a specific condition, such as cancer, that is known to result in unmanageable debt.


If you're struggling to find an organization in your area that may be able to help you, the Patient Advocate Foundation's National Financial Resource Directory can provide the information for both national and regional resources you can reach out to. Many of these resources are dedicated to the sole purpose of decreasing the burden of medical debt. 

Set up a payment plan

If all else fails, it's far better to commit to a long-term payment plan than it is to leave your medical bills unpaid. If you attempt to set up a plan on the hospital or healthcare provider's website and are shocked or discouraged by the minimum payment, don't give up. Many times, if you call and speak to a representative in the billing department, they can manually lower the minimum payment for you (via Rollins Law Firm).


The payments will be automatically deducted from your bank account on the same day each month. While you might be tempted to avoid a long period of payments by paying off the bill with a credit card, this is a mistake. A payment plan with a hospital or medical provider is interest-free while a credit card is not. In fact, you could end up paying hundreds of dollars in interest each month on a large balance, according to NerdWallet. It's a far more affordable deal to make interest-free payments directly to the provider.