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Being sick or hospitalized are difficult and stressful enough without having to worry about the inevitable bills you will receive later. It is important to know your rights to be able to reduce the amount of your medical debt and its adverse consequences. Photo Credit: Wayhome Studio, Adobe Stock

Answer: As much as we try to avoid them, illnesses and accidents do occur. Being sick is a difficult and stressful enough experience without having to worry about the inevitable bills you will receive later. Hopefully, the information below will help:

Keep your bills organized— Organizing your hospital bills and marking bills that you have paid will prevent overpayment. In addition, when collectors begin calling on these bills ask for the collector to verify the debt and match their documents with your documents. If you have documents that show that payments were made on a particular debt or a bill is completely satisfied, you have a defense and can ask that the debt collectors stop calling you.

Make sure to ask that the debt collectors stop calling you in writing.

Do a line-by-line-check of your bill— If you have recently had a hospital stay, make sure you get an itemized accounting of your total charges. If an itemized accounting is not sent with the bill, contact the hospital, and ask for one. Many times, there will be errors on the bill that a phone call to the hospital or your insurance company can rectify. Double-checking your bill will ensure that you are not being charged for the same thing twice or services that you did not receive.

Additionally, when you receive a bill from the hospital, the hospital must send an easy-to-read information sheet that explains who you can contact about the bill, how to apply for financial assistance and government programs such as Medicaid (which can be retroactive, up to 3 months, if you qualify) or other programs that might help.

They also need to advise you as to your rights with respect to the bill, and they need to notify you that you will receive separate medical bills for physician services or what may not be covered.

Ask the hospital for financial assistance programs— Nonprofit hospitals have written policies to reduce or even eliminate certain medical charges if you are eligible for financial assistance. Charity care and financial assistance programs are required by Maryland law, and these programs need to provide free or low cost medically necessary care for low to moderate income families and patients. Free health care is provided to patients with family incomes that are at or below 150 percent of the federal government poverty level.

Reduced costs must also be offered to other low-income patients with total family incomes above 150 percent of poverty levels. Hospitals are required to have standard applications for people to use when applying for financial assistance, and they must provide these applications to all uninsured and / or low-income patients.

Bankruptcy— When facing a waterfall of medical bills, bankruptcy is a solution and can provide an out for people drowning in debt. There are several types of bankruptcy. You should consult with an attorney to find out what type is best for you.

What Not To Do:

Do not use credit cards to pay medical debt— The worst thing you can do is incur more debt to pay medical bills. Delinquent credit card debt affects your credit score immediately. Medical debt is a low priority debt. While medical debt may eventually end up on your credit report, it will not show up for months and hospitals are less likely to bring collection suits on an overdue bill than credit card companies.

If you request financial assistance, nonprofit hospitals cannot start a collection action against you until it determines your eligibility.

Regardless of if you qualify for financial assistance, hospitals are willing to reduce the amount of delinquent debt if you can show financial hardship. Once you put medical debt on your credit card, you lose these opportunities.

Do not ignore the bills— Although it can be very tempting to hide your head in the sand when it comes to bills piling up, that is not something you want to do. Medical debt’s status as a low priority debt does not mean that one should ignore medical debt. You have special rights concerning medical debt, and it is important to know these rights to be able to reduce the amount of your medical debt and its adverse consequences.

To learn more about free civil legal help, visit Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service’s website at www.mvlslaw.org.

Aja’ Mallory is a staff attorney at the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). Her practice focuses on housing and consumer issues for Marylanders of limited means.

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