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Consumer Guide: Problems with Medical Bills or Debt

When you get a medical bill, sometimes it can be hard to know how much you owe and why. Then, you have to figure out how to pay it. The good news is that there are many resources that can help. We share those here.

Understanding your medical bill

Right after you get your medical bill, look at it closely. Check for any mistakes. Even if you have health insurance, billing errors may lead to higher co-pays and drug costs.

To help you with your bill, the American Academy of Family Physicians created Understanding Your Medical Bills. This website explains billing statements from your doctor. It also reviews the explanation of benefits report you get from your insurance plan.

If you don’t agree with the bill or think there’s an error, contact your hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office. If you can’t fix the issue with them, contact Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Paying your medical bill

You must pay all your medical bills unless you challenge them and win. If you can’t pay the bill, here are some resources and tips to try:

  • Talk with your health provider about a payment plan—Some providers will accept smaller payments each month. You should:
    • Contact the right office as soon as you can to set up an agreed payment plan. Stay in contact with them until you finish your payments.
    • Write down the name and phone number of people you talk to by phone. Also note the date, time, and result of the call.
    • Pay something each month, even if it’s small. This builds trust that you will pay your bill.
    • Keep up with your payments over time.
  • Get credit counseling—Beware that some services charge high fees without helping you with your debt. Make sure you work with a credit counseling service (also called an adjustment service company) that’s licensed through the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. Here are ways to find this service:
  • Learn about Free Hospitals and Charity Care in Wisconsin.
  • Apply for Wisconsin Medicaid or BadgerCare Plus—If you qualify, Medicaid may pay for some of your current bills. Medicaid coverage can start as early as the first day of the month, three months before you apply.
  • Get creative about finding help from other sources—Charities, foundations, civic organizations, churches, and other groups may help. The Patient Advocate Foundation lists some fundraising ideas for those with high medical bills.
  • Don’t ignore your bills—It’s tempting but not a good option. Ignoring a bill can hurt your credit. Providers often will work with you if you call them right away.
  • Don’t move your debt to a credit card—Most experts warn that this isn’t a good choice for paying medical bills. There are two main reasons:
    • The interest rates on your credit card are high. They’ll add a lot more to how much you pay.
    • If you move your debt to a credit card, it may affect whether you can get Medicaid. You can often subtract medical debt from your gross income to see if you are eligible. Medical debt on a credit card may no longer count as medical debt.

Dealing with medical debt

If you don’t pay your medical bills, you may have to think about:

  • Collection agencies—Your provider may turn your bill over to a collection agency, who will work to get payments from you. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you from harassment. If you have questions about your rights or treatment from a collection agency, use the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. Note that they only work with people who live in Wisconsin or those against companies located in Wisconsin.
  • Bankruptcy—Filing for bankruptcy should be your last option. Learn more about how bankruptcy works from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
  • Legal help—You may find that you need legal help to deal with your medical debt.

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Last revised January 23, 2024