Dealing with a huge medical bill with no health insurance
Amid all the drama of the attempted Obamacare repeals, it’s been easy to forget what we’re wrangling over: Health insurance is something everyone needs to protect their well-being, physical and financial. Serena found that out the hard way. In the summer of 2014, she had just started a new job at a publishing company. All good there. But then she got sick. And because her employer-based health insurance hadn’t yet kicked in, the medical bills almost buried her. Until she found a few smart ways to get back on track.
How did you find yourself uninsured?
I was on a “freelance-to-permanent” period at my new job. At the time, I was young and healthy enough to think I could get away with not having coverage for a few months, especially since I was superexcited about the job opportunity.
Tell me about getting sick—and the bills that ensued.
One morning, I woke up with stomach pains. I was doubled over at my desk by 1 p.m. and went home to sleep it off. After some WebMD research, I was pretty certain I had appendicitis and went to urgent care. That cost me $50. The doctor confirmed my suspicions and told me to go to the hospital emergency room. I took an $8 taxi after declining their invitation to call an ambulance because I knew I didn’t have insurance to cover it. I ended up in surgery the following morning and I had my appendix removed. That’s when the bills really piled up.
Ouch. What was the first thing you did to take care of the debt when you got out of the hospital?
When I got my first hospital bill about a month or so later, it was such a ridiculously dramatic amount—$39,000—that I almost had a heart attack. I called the billing department to plead my case, and they actually lowered my hospital fees to only $1,600. I was so thankful!
But the story didn’t end there. The other bills started to come, and I got so angry about how separate and confusing all the bills were. I had never had major surgery, so I was pretty naïve to think I only had the one hospital bill to worry about.
My surgeon bill was the biggest of these—$10,000. I tried to negotiate with his office, but he wouldn’t budge. I eventually convinced him to put me on a payment plan. The total cost of my medical bills ended up being around $12,000. This included my hospital stay, lab work, the surgeon, and other associated fees—a lot less than I’d been originally charged, but still a ton of money for me.
Hospital bills can be baffling. And just when you think you’ve gotten the last one—surprise! So how did you pay it all off?
Slowly. I set up payment plans for all the bills with the various health care providers. I also had other debt to worry about—student loans and credit card—but if I ever had a windfall, I would put the extra money toward my medical bills. It took me nearly two years after my surgery to pay off all that medical debt.
Sometimes it helps to talk about your problems with a friend or family member. Did you ever reach out to anyone?
Not really, other than to complain about having debt. I did mention it to my boss, hoping he’d change my employment situation so I could get health insurance—and it worked.
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
I definitely would’ve either negotiated to get health insurance at my job or tried to figure out how to pay for it on my own.
Did this health crisis have any long-term effects on your finances?
Thankfully, no effect on my credit score. I did deplete what little savings I had to pay for the initial installment of my surgeon bill, so I had to figure out how to rebuild that emergency cushion.
Any advice you’d give someone to prep for this situation?
Get health insurance and build an emergency savings fund. But if you can’t do either and wind up with a huge medical bill, try negotiating. Billing departments told me they don’t like sending people to collection agencies. They’d much rather work out a deal with the patient. Also, I would say it’s important to figure out if any additional bills might be coming after you get your first one. I didn’t do that, and it was a major surprise to see the bills keep coming six months after surgery.
(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)