Avoid the Nightmare of Unexpected Medical Costs


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Nothing says, "thanks for stopping by," like a $5,000 bill from your doctor. More often than not, these bills come as a complete surprise. And increasingly they're causing severe financial stress for Americans, with medical expenses surpassing both credit card debt and unpaid mortgages as the leading cause of bankruptcy filings.

In some cases, the charges are unavoidable and the services performed may very well have been life saving. But with healthcare costs continuing to rise, it's important for consumers to realize just how much more control they have over their spending.

Choose Wisely

Comparison shopping may be a no brainer when it comes to a big purchase like a new home or car. Medical bills can be just as expensive, but few Americans do their research ahead of time, let alone compare prices between hospitals. According to new federal data, prices vary dramatically across the country, and even within the same city one hospital may charge three times as much as another one for the exact same service. That means comparison shopping could mean the difference between a crushing medical bill and one that is more affordable.

Even with seemingly straightforward needs, you can save money by understanding different fee structures. For instance, if your child has an earache on the weekend, you'll pay far less if you visit your local Urgent Care instead of the Emergency Room.

Be Proactive

A recent survey from the journal Health Affairs found that 80% of orthopedic surgeons don't know the cost of commonly used orthopedic devices. This is understandable—doctors are trained to provide health care, not price quotes. They're also trained to err on the side of being extremely conservative. But conservative measures can be costly, and may not even be necessary. Don't be afraid to ask your doctor about your options, and to participate in the decision making process. If they recommend a test or procedure, talk to the billing department before you move forward. That way, even if you pay a high price, you'll do so willingly and with the ability to understand the benefit.


Health care administrators determine their own pricing, just like a realtor sets the price for a new home listing. Costs are not standardized, and it's important to realize that means they aren't set in stone. Even if you can afford the out of pocket costs on an expensive medical procedure, it's worth your while to try negotiating the final amount. It might seem odd to haggle with your doctor's billing department, but payment plans and decreased settlement amounts are common practice. As long as you reach an agreement directly with the hospital, it will not affect your credit score.

Considering medical costs represent such a high percentage of our spending, it's almost irresponsible not to try. Especially if the bill was unexpected and painfully high.

--Written by Lauren Lyons Cole for MainStreet

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