Ask Stacy: How Do I Deal With an Unfair Medical Bill?

A reader went to the doctor to have a tick removed and now she has a $750 bill that’s getting under her skin. Is there any way she can get it reduced?

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If there’s ever been a reader with a better reason to be “ticked off” at a doctor, I can’t imagine who it would be.

Check out the following question:

On April 29, I went to a walk-in clinic to have a tick removed from my head (I could not remove it because I could not see it) and on Friday, May 31, I received a bill for $750 to be paid by May 28. Is this normal and is there anyone who can help me? Am I to blame for not asking the cost of this before they helped me? I am in my 60s and this has been so stressful. — Sara

If this story related to any business other than health care, I would have assumed this reader was pulling my leg. But since it concerns our health care system, I find it not only believable, but likely.

Exactly what are these services worth?

Last spring I had a high fever and couldn’t immediately get in to see my doctor. I was in such misery, I went to a nearby emergency room. After a few hours, a few tests, and a shot of antibiotics, I was on my way.

Several days later I got the bill: $2,400.

My first call, of course, was to the hospital. And my first question was if they’d sent their bill through my insurance company. They said no, that their records reflected I was uninsured. I assured them I wasn’t and provided my health insurance information on the spot.

A few weeks later, I got a new bill: $600.

The services the hospital supplied were presumably profitable at $600. Otherwise they wouldn’t have negotiated that rate with my insurance company. Yet they had no problem charging $1,800 more for the same services to someone they assumed had no insurance. And if that hypothetical uninsured person had been unwilling or unable to pay? Rest assured the hospital wouldn’t hesitate to sue them.

Such is the state of health care in this country. It would be laughable if it didn’t ruin the bank accounts and peace of mind of people like Sara.

Time magazine reporter Steven Brill recently made the talk show circuit after writing a comprehensive story about this exact issue: hyper-inflated medical bills ostensibly created out of thin air and in no way related to the cost of the services provided. While Brill did a great job on his story, the subject is nothing new. We covered it in 2009: See “Killer Hospital Bills.”

Sara asks, “Am I to blame for not asking the cost of this before they helped me?” Answer: We should all ask the price of anything before agreeing to it.

When it comes to health care, however, that’s often easier said than done. Sure, Sara could have asked the cost for tick removal and, after being beaten up this way, it’s likely she’ll do so in the future. But how could I get an advance quote on fixing my fever when the services needed to be performed before the cause was uncovered were unknown? 

What should Sara do?

The first thing Sara should do is what every consumer should do when confronted with any kind of bill that feels unfair. Contact the person responsible, calmly explain the situation and, in the friendliest possible way, ask to have the bill reduced. Whether it’s a plumber, a restaurant or a doctor, you have every right to question a bill and ask for an adjustment if the cost is unreasonable in relation to the services provided. 

When Sara calls and asks for a lower bill, she’ll probably get results. In a story called “Confessions of a Serial Haggler,” I quoted a Consumer Reports survey revealing how often people were successful when attempting to negotiate various expenses. The results:

  • Furniture — 94 percent of those who asked got a better deal at least once.
  • Medical bills — 93 percent of people who tried negotiating a lower bill were successful at least once.
  • Home electronics — 92 percent were successful at least once.
  • Appliances — 92 percent were successful at least once.
  • Floor models/demos — 91 percent were successful at least once.
  • Credit card/bank fees — 87 percent were successful at least once.
  • Jewelry — 86 percent were successful at least once.
  • Cellphone plans — 80 percent were successful at least once.
  • Collectibles — 78 percent were successful at least once.

So Sara’s odds are good. And that’s something I can verify through my own experience. Because my health insurance has a $5,000 deductible, I’ve often asked for, and received, discounts from my doctor.

What Sara shouldn’t do

What many people do when confronted with bills they can’t pay or find unreasonable is decide they’re unfair, then do nothing. Result? The provider of the service rightfully decides the customer is a deadbeat and should be treated like one. So they send the bill to collections, ruin the customer’s credit, and do everything within their power to exact revenge and coerce payment.

Doing nothing is unfair to the service provider. They deserve to know the reason they’re not getting paid. More important, unless you’re indigent, it won’t work anyway.

If you don’t like the bill, don’t ignore it, contest it. If after stating your case you’re still not happy, take it up a notch. For example, Sara could talk to a medical billing advocate — a professional representing consumers with health care bills. She can find one by visiting Medical Billing Advocates of America. She could also talk to a consumer attorney.

But I’d be willing to bet that a simple phone call is going to leave Sara feeling a lot less bugged. Hopefully she’ll let us know what happened.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

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