Medical Bills: It’s Hard to Keep Your Head Above Water

Requiring medical care in the United States can be almost as debilitating as the illness itself. When patients should focus on recovering, they often spend their time deciphering the codes on large, complicated bills.

Classifications of medical conditions started in the 17th century to track and prevent diseases, but today, the coding of medical procedures seems to have taken on a largely financial purpose. In fact, a small variation on a medical procedure could warrant an entirely different code and, as a result, a completely different financial obligation.

Today, coders who work for doctors and hospitals seek to increase the amount owed per procedure or visit, while codes who work for insurance companies seek ways to deny these claims. In a war of medical codes, patients who have insurance with high deductibles, or have no insurance at all, are usually the victims.

Medical billing and coding is a big business in the United States. According to a study by the Commonwealth Fund, “25% of all U.S. hospital spending consists of administrative costs, including salaries for staff who handle coding and billing.” This is higher than the administrative costs of at least seven other nations, including Netherlands, England and Canada.

As the billing and coding business gets bigger, so do patients’ bills. According to a New Kaiser/New York Times survey, one in five (20%) of insured, working-age Americans claim to have problems paying medical bills. For people who are uninsured, that number is much higher: half of un-insured Americans have problems paying their medical bills.

The following fact is astounding: medical debt is the number one reason for personal bankruptcy. People are struggling not only to decipher their complicated bills, but also to pay them. Some may be able to negotiate, while others lack the resources and the knowledge to do so.

If you are faced with large medical bills, there are a few things you could do:

  1. Ask for an itemized bills of all the charges; a patient is entitled to a detailed bill of every charge. Hospitals and doctors can make costly mistakes.
  2. Do research. Sites like Healthcare Bluebook can help you navigate and determine fair medical costs.

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