Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Medical Bills Can Be Discounted If You Pay Promptly

Many medical providers will give you a substantial discount if you pay within 30 days. It saves them the cost of trying to collect from you over a period of weeks, months, or years.

I thought I knew everything there was to know about paying medical bills until I got a call from a provider's in-house bill collector. At first I was puzzled, and then I realized that I had received that bill, put it aside, and forgotten to pay it promptly. The medical bill was for the balance due after my insurance company had cut the charges down to the contracted rate agreed to by the supplier, and then had paid its share of the remaining charge. The provider had already received a nice chunk of change, and I only owed less than 20% of what had been originally billed, but it still was nearly $500.

Nothing unusual so far. Many of us eventually get a bill for a remaining portion that our insurance policy does not pay. The big surprise was that once I'd finally located the bill, the bill collector voluntarily offered to cut the charge by 20% if I would pay it within 30 days. 

I had not said anything about having any difficulty in coming up with the money. I had not suggested that I make payments over time. I had not asked for a discount. The provider voluntarily offered me a discount that saved me just under $100. I don't know about you, but for me, saving that much was definitely worth five minutes on the phone. I could have paid the $500 invoice, but I am quite happy to have paid only $400 instead.

Since then I have learned that all medical providers do consider giving discounts. But you may have to ask. When you get a bill, call the number on it, and ask if they can give you a discount. If they refuse, say you'll then have to make payments on account. At that point, even the stubborn providers may grant you the discount, rightly fearing that you might never make all those payments, or any payments at all. It's very expensive to go after people for unpaid medical bills. Try to make sure the discount is at least 20%, but let them suggest the number. They may give you an even bigger discount.

If your doctor wants you to have a test or procedure or even a visit with another doctor that your medical insurance will not cover at all, you can call that other provider in advance and explain, and ask for a discount. I once negotiated a test fee in advance down from $700 to $75 simply by asking. The doctor involved did it as a courtesy to the referring doctor, whom he admired. That was very generous, and considering my lack of insurance at the time, very necessary.

It also is not unreasonable to ask a provider who would have been paid by an insurer to accept that amount as payment in full. There are at least two versions: (1) The provider simply forgives the remaining balance, or (2) If you have no insurance coverage for that doctor, or service, you pay the provider directly an amount that is the same as an insurance company would have paid. For instance, if a doctor charges $120 a visit, but routinely only receives $64 from an insurer, plus a $15 patient co-pay, and your current insurance won't pay at all, you can ask to pay $79 a visit, which is all the doctor would get anyway. You have in effect received a 33% discount.

If you need to go out-of-network for certain specialists or tests, and your insurance company pays a smaller percentage of the charge, you should try this method. It never hurts to ask.