Editorial Policy

5 ways to tame your medical bills

Allie Johnson

February 12, 2014

Have you ever dealt with a barrage of medical bills? It’s not fun, and worse, it can even ding your credit if you’re not careful.

It’s especially challenging to deal with envelope after envelope from insurance companies and medical providers when so many of us have gotten so spoiled by paperless billing and automatic bill pay. It definitely overwhelmed me and almost led to a black mark on my husband’s credit.

Our medical bill debacle started with several health issues — a shoulder injury and a health scare for me, and severe back strain for my husband. In the span of a few months, we had doctor visits, physical therapy sessions, an ER visit and an array of tests.

That, of course, resulted in a flood of mail from our insurance company and, eventually, a slew of paper bills, many of which were under $20. We were also remodeling our house, and a few bills got misplaced.

At one point, I received a collection agency notice for a lab test bill for my husband. Neither of us could remember getting the initial bill or any late notices.

I immediately asked the collection agency if the notice had been reported to the credit bureaus. They told me that they had just received the account, and it had not been reported. I explained that this had been an oversight. We agreed to pay promptly, and they promised that a collection notation would not show up on my husband’s credit report..

I eventually got a handle on our bills, and developed five ways to keep track of a large number of medical bills.

1. Designate a place for bills

Unless you pay every bill as soon as you get it, it’s important to set up a bill-paying zone in your house. That’s what I used to do before I automated everything, and I’ve found it helps keep bills from getting stashed in a drawer or even tossed. Also, seeing the bill every day reminds you to pay it.

2. Stock up on stamps and envelopes

We use stamps so rarely that we’d gotten in the habit of not keeping them around. I hate having to spend extra to pay a bill. But while some medical providers offer the option of online payment, others don’t. Keeping old-school, bill-paying supplies makes it easier to pay bills quickly.

3. Keep track of bills you’ve already paid

Medical providers are notorious for double billing, so it’s important to stay organized. In fact, a recent bill I received notified patients of a change in billing procedures that “might result in double billing.” I  write “PAID” on each paid bill and stick them in a dedicated folder. Being Mama Bear, a blog about parenting chronically ill children, recommends writing the date of payment on the bill itself and recording the amount in Quicken or wherever you keep track of your finances. Consumer blogger Kerry Taylor, at Squawkfox.com, recommends a dedicated medical expense spreadsheet, which helps at tax time, too.

4. Read mail from your insurer

It can be tempting to toss those explanations of benefits from your insurer that say “this is not a bill.” Don’t. By reading them, we caught a mistake that listed an in-network lab as out-of-network, meaning the insurer paid less and we owed hundreds of dollars. I called the insurance company immediately and got the error corrected. Personal finance writer Miranda Marquit points out on Quizzle.com that medical bill errors are common and often not in the consumer’s favor.

5. Follow up with medical providers

After our brushes with collections, I worried that some bill might be floating around unpaid and later damage my or my husband’s credit. So, I went through the folder of paid bills and called each doctor, hospital and lab to check for outstanding bills.

Finally, you can go high-tech with Simplee Wallet. CoupleMoney.com blogger Elle Martinez suggests the medical tracker if it’s available for your health insurance plan (It wasn’t available to Martinez when she had birth-related medical bills.) If I had known about this tool a few months ago, I probably would have tried it.

But there was an upside to dealing with our medical bills the old-fashioned way: We remembered not to depend on automation and to be a little more hands-on with our money.