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
Don’t Trash These 11 ‘Disposable’ Items — Reuse Them
Don’t Trash These 11 ‘Disposable’ Items — Reuse Them

Are you throwing away money? Consider giving these things a new purpose.

7 Ways to Save Money Without Trying
7 Ways to Save Money Without Trying

Saving money doesn’t always mean drudgery and sacrifice. These tools make it easy — sometimes even fun.

The 10 Best Outdoor Home Upgrades for Your Money
The 10 Best Outdoor Home Upgrades for Your Money

There’s still time this summer to make improvements to the exterior of your home. These offer the best payback.

15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2020
15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2020

Follow these tips to save — so you’ll have money for things that really matter.

10 Products That Upgrade Your Home for Less Than $45
10 Products That Upgrade Your Home for Less Than $45

Make a fresh start with these affordable Amazon buys.

View this page without ads

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

Get Started

Most Popular
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco
11 Things Retirees Should Always Buy at Costco

This leader in bulk shopping is a great place to find discounts in the fixed-income years.

Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines
Over 50? The CDC Says You Need These 4 Vaccines

Fall is the time to schedule vaccines that can keep you healthy — and even save your life.

11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous
11 Household Items That Go Bad — or Become Dangerous

When you get the impulse to stockpile these everyday items, pay close attention to their expiration dates.

8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies
8 Things You Can Get for Free at Pharmacies

In this age of higher-priced drugs and complex health care systems, a trip to the pharmacy can spark worry. Freebies sure do help.

7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast
7 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score Fast

Your financial security might soon depend upon the strength of your credit score.

11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older
11 Senior Discounts for Anyone Age 55 or Older

There is no need to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of so-called “senior” discounts.

These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020
These Are the 4 Best Medicare Advantage Plans for 2020

Medicare Advantage customers themselves rate these plans highest.

The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America
The 10 Most Commonly Stolen Vehicles in America

A new model parks atop the list of vehicles that thieves love to pilfer.

19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree
19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a 2-Year Degree

These jobs pay more than the typical job in the U.S. — and no bachelor’s degree is required.

9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday
9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020
The 15 Worst States for Retirees in 2020

Based on dozens of metrics tied to affordability, quality of life and health care, these are not ideal places to spend retirement.

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.

26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income
26 States That Do Not Tax Social Security Income

These states won’t tax any of your Social Security income — and in some cases, other types of retirement income.

10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62
10 Reasons Why You Should Actually Retire at 62

If you can, here are several good reasons to retire earlier than we’re told to.

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.

5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles
5 Keys to Making Your Car Last for 200,000 Miles

Pushing your car to 200,000 miles — and beyond — can save you piles of cash. Here’s how to get there.

7 Surprising Features That Boost Your Home Value
7 Surprising Features That Boost Your Home Value

You can add value to your home without hiring a contractor to do expensive renovations.

5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees
5 Things That Make Life More Meaningful for Retirees

Retirees agree: These are the things that give them purpose and fulfillment in their golden years.

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.