Finances 101: A Toolkit for Young Adults with Cancer (Medical Bills, Part 2)

Finances 101: A Toolkit for Young Adults with Cancer is in partnership with Triage Cancer. This toolkit is to help you, our young adult survivor community, make the best informed financial decisions you can so that you don’t find yourself drowning in bills and consequences for years after treatment. Earlier this month we addressed Finances 101: A Toolkit for Young Adults with Cancer (Medical Bills, Part 1). Today we will look at a few more common billing questions, with answers from the experts at Triage Cancer.

1. The balance on my bills is too high for me to pay them, but I’m terrified of ruining my credit score by having them go to collections. How can I avoid having them go to collections?

Unfortunately, you are facing a problem far too common for young adults once they are diagnosed. The first thing that you should consider is contacting all of the providers that you owe money to and let them know that you are doing your best to pay your bills. Ask if they are willing to set up a payment schedule with you instead of sending the bills to collections. Some providers will even accept a lower amount than you owe, if you pay it in one lump sum, as opposed to a payment plan. Additionally, many hospitals have financial assistance programs based on income levels. Generally, there is an application process, and there may even be a financial counselor at the hospital or doctor’s office that can help you.

Communication is the key when dealing with bills from health care providers. They simply cannot help you if they don’t know what is going on. Also, before paying any bills, you want to make sure that they are correct. If you have questions about your bills, use your health care team as a resource.

Additionally, seek out alternative sources of funds to help pay your bills. For example, maybe you can get assistance paying your gas bill or mortgage, which would allow you to shift funds towards your medical bills. Another option may be to set up a personal fundraiser through programs like GiveForward, GoFundMe, or Standbuy. For ideas of potential financial assistance options, visit our Financial, Legal, and Work Assistance page or Triagecancer.org – Financial.

2. I’m so embarrassed by the amount of money I owe my doctor that I feel like I can’t go back for follow-up appointments. I feel really terrible– I want to make sure my doctor gets paid.

Similar to our suggestions above, it is best to communicate with your providers. Most health care providers would not want you skipping follow-up appointments or treatment because of outstanding bills. Contact your provider’s office or billing department and let them know that you are having trouble paying your bill. Ask if you are eligible for financial assistance or setting up a payment plan.

Are these bills for services that your insurance denied covering? If so, it may be worthwhile to look into appealing the insurance company’s decision. Each insurance company has an internal appeals process that you will have to follow. If you exhaust the internal appeals process and the outcome is still not in your favor, you can file to request an external appeal (aka: Independent Medical Review). Each state has a slightly different process for requesting external appeals, so you should contact your state’s insurance agency for more information. The contact information for each state’s agency can be found at Triagecancer.org – State Resources/. If you do decide to file an appeal, Triage Cancer’s Appeals Tracking Form may be a useful tool to help you stay organized.

Thinking towards the future, it is also very important to make sure that the health insurance policy that you have is adequate for your needs. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) it is now possible for people to shop around for insurance, even after a cancer diagnosis. The plans sold on the State Health Insurance Marketplaces have out-of-pocket maximums, so that you know at the start of the year the maximum amount you will be responsible for paying out-of-pocket for covered services. Open enrollment for the Marketplaces began on November 15, 2014, and runs through February 15, 2015. You may even be eligible for financial assistance to purchase a plan through your state’s Marketplace. For more information visit Healthcare.gov and take a look at this past post (link to post on ACA).

3. My credit was damaged due to medical debt. Are there any resources available to help me deal with my damaged credit?

It can be challenging to raise your credit score if it drops, but it is possible. The FTC’s “Credit Repair: How to Help Yourself” is a good place to begin.
Moreover, just because you have a low credit score does not mean that you cannot get credit. Each creditor sets their own standards and some may only look at your recent credit history. If your bill-paying history has improved, they may offer you credit. It may be worthwhile to contact potential creditors informally to discuss their credit standards.

That said, there are some ways to build a better credit report. The FTC’s “Free Credit Reports” will help you. For example, if you have one or more credit cards, make sure that the balances on each card are not more than 75% of your available credit on that card.

Do your best to show general fiscal responsibility, including:

  • Filing your taxes. Even if you cannot pay the whole amount that is due, file your return and work out a payment plan with you state tax entity and the IRS.
  • Paying down your bills with the highest interest rates first.
  • Looking into secured credit cards. These are credit cards that require you to put a certain amount of money into an account, after which you are given a credit card with that spending limit. There are lots of credit card scams out there, so make sure that you go a reputable credit institution, such as a large bank or local credit union. Make sure to get all of the information before getting a secured card. Avoid cards with fees or ones that require you to buy insurance.
  • Building your savings by paying yourself first each month, even if it is a small amount.
  • Retirement might seem far off in the future, but building your retirement assets is important, especially if you had to dip into your retirement plan while in treatment to help pay bills. If your employer matches your contributions to a 401k plan or another retirement plan, don’t leave money on the table. Try to contribute the maximum amount to your plan that your employer will match.

You may also want to consider contacting a The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) office near you to see if they can offer direct services to help you start to rebuild your credit and overall financial health.

© Triage Cancer 2014. Please note that this information is designed to provide general information on the topics presented. It is provided with the understanding that the experts are not engaged in rendering any legal or professional services by its publication. The information provided should not be used as a substitute for professional services.