Ask Stacy: How Can I Fight an Unfair Medical Bill?

Photo (cc) by dno1967b

This week’s question is from a reader who’s ticked off at a doctor. Literally.

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 had been about any business other than health care, I would have thought this reader was pulling my leg, because the price is so out of line with the service received. But because it concerns medical costs, I find it not only believable, but likely.

Exactly what are these services worth?

A couple of years ago I had a high fever and couldn’t immediately get in to see my doctor. I was in such misery, I drove myself to a nearby hospital 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 was to the hospital, and my first question was if they’d sent their bill through my health insurance company. They said no, their records reflected I was uninsured. I explained that I was insured and provided my health insurance information.

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

Despite having insurance, I had to pay the $600, because my deductible was $6,000. But where else in America does a vendor charge one customer $600 and another $2,400 for the exact same service? Imagine how you’d feel if you paid $50,000 for a new car, then found out I’d bought the same car from the same dealer on the same day for $12,500.

The services the hospital supplied were presumably profitable at $600; otherwise they wouldn’t have agreed to that rate with my insurance company. Yet they had no problem charging an uninsured person 300 percent more. And if that person was unwilling or unable to pay this inflated bill? The account would go to collections, the collection agency would sue and get a judgment and that person’s credit would be ruined.

Time magazine reporter Steven Brill made the talk show circuit in 2013 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 known? Even if I hadn’t been practically delirious, there was no way for me to comparison shop.

What should Sara do?

The first thing Sara should do is what every consumer should do when confronted with any 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 break, 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. I’ve personally asked for, and received, discounts from doctors.

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 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, doing nothing 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.

Got a question you’d like answered?

A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It’s the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It’s also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you’re not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing here.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
7 Unusual Ways to Declutter Your Home
7 Unusual Ways to Declutter Your Home

Tired of possessions weighing you down? Here are seven ways to declutter painlessly and effectively.

14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021
14 Things You Should Stop Buying in 2021

These convenient household products come with hidden costs that you might not have considered.

16 Products That Solve Everyday Annoyances
16 Products That Solve Everyday Annoyances

These items put an end to the daily irritations that bug you the most.

9 Purchases That Will Make You More Productive
9 Purchases That Will Make You More Productive

These Amazon products can give you an extra edge at work and other parts of your life.

Here’s the Average Retirement Age in Your State
Here’s the Average Retirement Age in Your State

Are you on track to retire at the same age as most residents of your state?

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

How to Buy Gas At Costco Without a Membership
How to Buy Gas At Costco Without a Membership

The warehouse club often has some of the cheapest gas in town. Here’s how you can get it as a nonmember.

10 Things to Stop Buying If You Want a Clutter-Free Home
10 Things to Stop Buying If You Want a Clutter-Free Home

If you like to keep things simple, avoid these purchases.

Prices Are Soaring on These 7 Items
Prices Are Soaring on These 7 Items

Some surprise price jumps are making life more difficult for consumers.

A Simple Way to Silence Robocalls Today
A Simple Way to Silence Robocalls Today

A few steps can keep your phone from ringing when a spammer calls.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

This iconic dinnerware is prized for everyday use as well as reselling for profit.

This Company Makes the Best Tires in America
This Company Makes the Best Tires in America

Driver satisfaction with tires is at an all-time high, but one brand stands out.

7 Home Improvements That Cost a Lot More in 2021
7 Home Improvements That Cost a Lot More in 2021

These projects will take a bigger bite out of your budget than in the recent past.

This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance
This Health Issue Can Hint at Dementia Years in Advance

One type of pain is especially associated with cognitive decline.

Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?
Can I Switch to Spousal Social Security Benefits When My Ex Dies?

Knowing when to claim can help you maximize benefits.

Medicare Will Not Cover These 6 Medical Costs
Medicare Will Not Cover These 6 Medical Costs

Don’t let these health care expenses catch you off guard in retirement.

8 Things You Should Always Buy on Amazon
8 Things You Should Always Buy on Amazon

The giant retailer shines when it comes to these things, from basics to hard-to-find specialty goods.

Beware This Hidden Ingredient in Rotisserie Chicken
Beware This Hidden Ingredient in Rotisserie Chicken

Something foul may lurk in those delicious, ready-to-eat birds.

5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free
5 Ways to Get Amazon Prime for Free

Hesitant to drop $119 a year on an Amazon Prime membership? Here’s how to get it for free.

5 Ways to Fill Your Pantry With Free Food
5 Ways to Fill Your Pantry With Free Food

Anyone can take advantage of these resources.

Never Buy These 10 Things on Amazon
Never Buy These 10 Things on Amazon

Just because you can purchase something on Amazon doesn’t mean that you should.

7 Big Purchases You Should Never Make
7 Big Purchases You Should Never Make

Sometimes a big-ticket purchase is nothing more than a big waste of money.

5 States With the Worst Health Care for Retirees
5 States With the Worst Health Care for Retirees

All of these states are located in the same region of the nation.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.