The shocking truth about medical bills that can save you thousands
This reader story is by a longtime GRS reader Sumitha from afineparent.com, a blog founded on the simple belief that “Good Parents Are Made, Not Born.”
Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income.
How much would you think it would cost to treat an ant bite?
Yes, an ant bite.
Nope, its not $100. It's not even $1,000. How about $2,356?
On Easter Sunday, my husband and I got together with a bunch of friends and took the kids for the annual egg hunt at the neighborhood park. As the little ones were scrambling around for the eggs, we parents stood on the sidelines discussing their antics, the weather and the latest gossip. My husband, who is extremely allergic to ant bites, happened to be standing at the edge of an ant hill.
Suddenly, he started to itch all over and then right before our eyes, he began to inflate like a big red balloon. Considering that it was the Easter Sunday, we thought nothing would be open and rushed him to the closest emergency room. After a shot and an hour of observation, they sent him home, hale and healthy, to enjoy the rest of the weekend with our friends.
We thought nothing about it for a few weeks, until the bill arrived. When I opened the bill, I just about needed an emergency room. Since we have a high-deductible insurance plan, the entire portion of the bill was our responsibility!
Once I regained my bearings, I huffed and puffed — railed and ranted. Normally, after letting out the steam, I would have grudgingly paid the bill. But this happened just the month after I‘d quit my job, and I was not going to spend a chunk of my savings on an ant bite. I don't mind paying a doctor for a complicated procedure – they sure do earn their fees. But, this wasn't brain surgery; it was an ant bite!
I sat on that bill for a couple of days until I calmed down a bit. And then one day after my husband left for work and my daughter was in school, I settled down in a sofa with my phone and the bill.
First, I called the billing phone number. Unfortunately, I ended up talking to a very unsympathetic lady. When I failed miserably to appeal to her sympathy, in frustration, I asked her if she could provide me the hospital's direct number. She suggested that I talk to someone in their business office instead.
I was feeling quite hopeless already by the time I called the business office. This time, however, I got lucky and ended up talking to an extremely kind and sympathetic lady.
Did you even know that you could bargain down a medical bill?
I didn't either. Here's how our conversation went.
Me: <explaining our woe at length>
She: <listening patiently>
Me: So, is there anything you can do to help me out? I just can't bring myself to pay $2,356 for an ant bite.
She: Well, I have to offer you the same thing that I offer our other customers. Will you be able to pay the bill if I extended the due date on your bill by 30 days?
Me: No, you don't understand. It's not that I can't pay the bill, I just don't want to. It does not seem right to pay thousands for an ant bite
She: <Still very patient, and talking in a slow conspirator voice> I understand, but I have to offer you the same thing that I offer our other customers. Now, would you be interested in delaying your bill by 30 days?
Me: <Sighing deeply> No.
She: How about if I offered to split it into six equal payments?
Me: <Starting to feel hopeless again> Please try to understand. It's not that I cannot afford it. On a principle, I cannot bring myself to pay thousands of dollars for an ant bite.
She: <In the same, slow conspirator voice as before> Ma'am, I understand. But, I have to offer you the same thing that I offer our other customers. Now, would it help if we split your bill into no equal payments?
Me: No, thanks.
She: OK. How about if I offered you a 10 percent discount? Would you be able to pay the bill today? That would come up to $2,120.
Me: <Slowly catching on> No, thanks.
She: How about if I took off 20 percent? That would come up to $1,884. Would you be able to pay the bill today?
Me: You are very kind, but no, I still cannot pay that.
She: That is the most I am authorized to offer.
Me: <Sigh. Silence>
She: Do you mind if I put you on hold for a minute? Let me talk to my supervisor and see if there is something more we can do.
Me: Thank you very much! I will hold.
She: <After a short silence> Ma'am, my supervisor said we can offer you a 30 percent discount. That will bring your bill to $1,649.20. Is that something you can pay today?
Me: <Feeling like I'm in an episode of “Deal or No Deal”> Thanks, but I will pass.
She: <It's easier now. She knows I'm onto the game.> How about 40 percent? That will come to $1,413.60.
Me: No, thanks.
She: I can offer you 50 percent off to bring your balance to $1,178.00. Will you be able to pay that today?
Me: No, thanks.
She: <In a soft voice signaling that the game is over> Ma'am, this really is the best we can offer.
Me: Thanks, I appreciate that you have been so kind. But I really don't want to pay more than a thousand for an ant bite. Is there anything you can do to bring it to triple digits? Can you speak with your supervisor again?
She: I wish I could, but this is the most our department is allowed to offer. I could offer you 30 days to pay it or let you pay it in six equal payments, but that is as far as we can go.
Me: <Still not ready to give up> No, I don't need extra time, I just need some more reduction in the bill. Put yourself in my spot: Would you be willing to pay $1,000-plus for an ant bite?
She: <In a very kind and gentle voice> I completely understand. But please understand that this is really the best we can do. There may be other means you could pursue…
Me: <I suspect she meant that I let it go to collections. I let out a deep sigh.> OK, thanks. Let me go ahead and take care of it then.
So, I ended up paying $1,178. It's a lot more than what I would have liked to pay, but also a lot less than what I would have paid had I not picked up the phone and negotiated!
Lessons learned from this experience:
- Don't rush to the emergency room if you can avoid it. I learned later that going to an urgent care facility, which is usually open on weekends, might have resulted in a much lower bill.
- Medical bills are negotiable. Don't just pay the bill if you feel that the services rendered do not justify it. Call up the billing number and ask to be connected to the business office and see if they can help you reduce the bill.
- Be kind to the representative on the phone. I've recently been reading a lot of Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill's books and so, I decided to let myself calm down before making the phone call and venting out my frustration. I suspect this helped persuade the lady on the other end to show me (despite my slowness in catching on!) that it's possible to negotiate a medical bill.
How about you? What's the worst medical bill you've had to pay? Did you try negotiating it down?