Owe medical debt? This is how you can get it down, or even forgiven

PITTSBURGH — Over 50% of all debt sitting with third-party collection agencies is medical debt.

Consumer adviser Clark Howard said in many cases that debt could have been forgiven by the provider.

Rene Coker’s cancer diagnosis is more than a physical burden. Like millions of others, it’s also a financial burden.

“I knew that I had cancer in December. That’s when I got my diagnosis. And my breast cancer is triple negative,” Rene said.

The single mother of a young adult son works for an answering service.

“I make $14 an hour,” Rene said.

Even after insurance, Rene faced tens of thousands in medical bills. Rene told Howard that her stepmother Kate became her advocate for financial assistance.

“She was just amazing in starting the ball rolling because I just couldn’t think about finances,” Rene said.

After speaking with one provider, Kate was shocked to learn just how much Rene qualified for.

“She said, ‘Well, she qualifies for aid.’ And I said, ‘Well, how much?’ Because I thought maybe it was on a graduating scale. And she said 100%. I could have cried,” Kate said.

“It’s an enormous blessing. And without that I would be homeless, or die from my cancer,” Rene said.

Jared Walker founded the non-profit Dollar For. The organization helps consumers apply for charity care at hospitals.

“People need an advocate in times like this where it’s like, ‘I’m sick. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have the money. Who’s going to help?’” Walker said. “There is a federal law that requires nonprofit hospitals to have charity care.”

Program requirements vary by hospital and state.

“We’ve created this database where we wanted to put it all in one place,” Walker said.

Users enter their income, medical costs and hospital, and Dollar For lets them know if they qualify.

Since 2019, Dollar For has helped get $47 million in medical debt forgiven.

“The average policy will waive your medical bills if you’re at like 200% to 250% of the federal poverty guidelines,” Walker said.

Patients have 240 days from the start of treatment to apply, and one year before medical bills can be sent to collections.

One of the biggest mistakes people make…

“Ignoring it altogether. That happens a lot. It’s overwhelming. People get the letters, and they fling it in the trash, or they put them in the bin or the drawer where everything disappears,” Walker said.

Howard said to also avoid applying for a medical credit card or charging up your existing cards. Once you do that you no longer qualify for charity care.

Rene said being persistent is key to getting financial relief.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” Rene said.

Howard said even if you don’t qualify for full forgiveness you may qualify for partial forgiveness on a sliding scale. If you don’t qualify for that then negotiate. See how much of a reduction you can get in your bill and ask a lot. If you don’t ask, you don’t get it.

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