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How to manage unexpected health care costs and avoid bankruptcy

How to manage unexpected health care costs
How to manage unexpected health care costs 07:15

The coronavirus has compounded Americans' worries over and struggle to afford health care costs.

Fully half of American adults fear that a major health event in their household could lead to bankruptcy, compared to 45% in 2019, according to a recent study from West Health and Gallup.

These fears are not unfounded: Up to 70% of medical bills contain errors that can be costly for patients. 

"Worth the trouble" to prepare

Consumers of health care, however, are not powerless — patients should prepare before they even see a doctor in order to avoid medical debt. 

"It's worth the trouble," said Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News and the author of "An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back."

First, make sure the doctors who might treat you are all in your insurance network and that your insurer covers the services you're seeking. Get pre-approval if you need it Dr. Rosenthal told CBSN. 

Also ask for an estimate in writing. "That way when you want to argue you say, 'Look at this piece of paper,'" Dr. Rosenthal said. 

"Don't write the check," negotiate

If a patient is hit with an unexpected bill, negotiate, Dr. Rosenthal advised. 

"Don't just write the check," she said. "Fight for your hospital bill the same way you fight for your car repair bill. You can question this and you can negotiate."

First, ask for an itemized bill, and cross-check each item against the services you received. Refer to sites like Healthcare Bluebook  and Fair Health to determine fair rates. 

"Go in armed, go in ready," Dr. Rosenthal said. 

Tips to negotiate your medical bill 02:03

Ask for help

As a last resort, consider asking a hospital or provider for financial aid, even if you don't qualify or require it in other parts of your life. 

Of course, it's now open enrollment season for health insurance, and patients should consider insurance plans' premiums, deductibles, co-insurance rates and yearly out-of-pocket maximums when signing up for health insurance or changing plans.

"This is a big, big task and I'm sorry to have to ask Americans to do this. I hope in the future we'll have a system that doesn't require this kind of incredible homework when you're sick," said Dr. Rosenthal. "It's terrible." 

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