Few things can blow a budget like unexpected medical bills. Even those who practice frugality and invest for the future can find their financial plans smashed to pieces by unexpected health problems. And for those who don’t have their financial house in order, a medical crisis can be devastating.

Five years ago, I had surgery to replace the ACL on my right knee. Though I am insured through Kris’ job, I found the experience frustrating. Nobody could tell me how much any part of the process would cost. MRI? Nobody knew. Surgery? Nobody knew. They didn’t know the total costs, and they didn’t know what my obligation would be. “Don’t you have insurance?” everyone wanted to know.

In the end, my portion of the procedure cost me a couple thousand dollars, and physical therapy cost me even more. (I don’t have exact records from that period.) Because I was already deep in debt, these expenses only added to my stress. I had to borrow money from a family member to pay for the operation.

In a recent article at Kiplinger’s, Elizabeth Ody writes that there are ways to mitigate unexpected medical costs. She offers the following suggestions:

  • Read your bill. If you something seems wrong, ask questions. Nobody cares about your financial circumstances more than you do, so take charge of the situation. When I couldn’t understand the hospital bill, I called to find out what was going on. I asked for clarification.
  • Know your insurance. From my experience, insurance clauses can be arcane. Before I had my surgery, I read through our insurance and then called to ask questions about the sections that puzzled me. More recently, I had to see a doctor about a running injury. Finding a preferred provider near me was a challenge. Before you see a doctor or ask for treatment, be sure you understand how your coverage.
  • Shy away from plastic. Ody writes: “When you apply for credit, owing money on a medical debt isn’t viewed as negatively as, say, splurging on a Lexus…But once you transfer the debt to a credit card…you lose the benefit of the doubt.”
  • Drive a hard bargain. According to the article, what you are billed bears no relationship to what the provider will accept as payment in full. It’s often possible to ask for a discount. (The article provides a couple of examples of how this works.)
  • Find a hired gun. If your situation is complicated, it’s possible to hire a medical-billing advocate or claims specialist.

The full article contains further anecdotes and suggestions for slashing medical bills when they get out of control.

[Kiplinger's: Save thousands on your medical bills]