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Dealing with an unexpected medical bill you can't afford

Even though Americans have increased access to affordable health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act, an unexpected illness or injury can still result in hefty medical bills. High deductibles and out-of-network providers can leave you owing thousands of dollars that you can't pay.

Many people associate high medical costs with older people who are still too young for Medicare, but old enough that their bodies are starting to give out. However, about a quarter of Gex Xers and Millennials -- who are more likely to see themselves as invincible than older people -- have unpaid medical debt that has gone to collection agencies.

If you're facing a pile of medical bills, there are some options for helping reduce what you owe. First, make sure that the charges are accurate and that you weren't billed for a procedure or medication you didn't receive. Ask for an itemized bill if you didn't receive one. You may have to consult an online medical dictionary to understand some of the terms, but it could be worth it.

Next look at the Explanation of Benefits from your insurance company. This details what they paid for and what they declined or only covered a portion of. Call them if you don't understand why something wasn't covered. If your provider charged more than the standard rate in your area, you may be able to negotiate the price down with them.

Another way of negotiating with providers is to explain your situation and ask if they'll accept a reduced rate or even the amount covered by your insurer. Often, providers would rather get some payment than have to take on the expense of turning over an account to a collection agency, which may not help them recover any more money in the long run.

You can also offer to negotiate a payment program with the provider. However, make sure that it's one that you can afford and will stick to. This can help prevent damage to your credit rating.

The key is to deal with your debt as soon as possible. Putting off the inevitable isn't going to make the situation any better. Legal and credit professionals can offer advice for handling medical debt so that you can move on with your life after an injury or illness.

Source: Forbes, "How To Handle A Surprise Medical Bill And Keep Health Costs Under Control," Cathie Ericson, LearnVest, March 23, 2017

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