One in three people has difficulty paying their medical bills, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. And it isn’t just those without insurance who are struggling. With the advent of high-deductible plans, some people are finding themselves on the hook for upwards of $10,000 in medical bills before their plan kicks in a cent.
Fortunately, like cars and the carrots at your local farmers market, the price of medical care is negotiable. It’s just that, in the past, only the insurance companies did the negotiating.
However, Steve Neeleman, a board-certified physician, says consumers shouldn’t be afraid to do their own negotiating. Neeleman, who’s also the founder and vice chairman of health savings account provider HealthEquity, spoke to me about how people can successfully drop the bottom line on their medical bills.
Step 1: Keep your bills low from the start
As with most things in life, the best offense may be a good defense. In this case, that means keeping your medical bills low upfront rather than negotiating after the fact.
“The biggest portion of the cost is usually the facility cost,” Neeleman notes.
You can bring that facility cost down by exploring options. Your doctor or surgeon likely has the ability to work in a variety of settings, so ask him or her whether there is a cheaper venue that can be used. For example, an outpatient surgical center may be less expensive than the local hospital.
If you do find a cheaper facility, make sure it’s in your insurance provider’s network. Going to an out-of-network facility could mean you pay significantly higher co-pays or your out-of-pocket cost may not apply toward your deductible.
For more ideas, check out “10 Ways to Fight High Medical Costs.”
Step 2: Wait before calling on an outstanding bill
No matter where you go, it may be inevitable that a big bill is coming after the procedure. In that case, resist the urge to immediately call and plead your case. Billers are unlikely to negotiate a payment right after the bill has been sent.
“We recommend you wait a few weeks but don’t let it go to collections,” Neeleman says.
Step 3: Call in the morning
When it is time to call, try earlier in the morning. By the afternoon, worker enthusiasm wanes, which may make them less likely to want to help you.
Plus, by the afternoon, there’s always a possibility the worker you get on the phone has been beaten down by a dozen angry callers before you. At that point, they may be feeling a bit angry and combative themselves and not inclined to negotiate.
Step 4: Put on your happy voice and ask for a supervisor
Sometimes we think we need to be firm to get our way, but that’s not always the case. Being firm on the phone can come across as grumpy, angry or terse. And all those adjectives are likely to put the person you’re talking to on the defensive.
When you call to negotiate your bill, be pleasant, even happy if you can muster it. Smiling while you talk will make your tone sound friendlier. Tell the person who answers that you need to speak with a supervisor. If they press for a reason why, say that you have a billing question that you were told needs to be addressed by a supervisor. If the press for the reason again, I personally would say, “I’d really rather talk with a supervisor about it.”