Surviving medical debt: you have some options if you're struggling to pay

Photo credit: MGN

Medical debt is a problem so widespread, it affects about 24 percent of everyone living in the FOX66/NBC25 viewing area.

“I had no inkling whatsoever that a biopsy that took me an hour and a half would cost almost $10,000,” said Savannah Celestino, a 32-year-old breast cancer survivor in Gladwin Co.

After her battle with cancer, Celestino and her family, like thousands of others in mid-Michigan, now face another crisis: a financial one.

We spoke with debt experts about ways to minimize that financial burden.

“It's horrible. That is the number one reason that people who file bankrupt, file,” said Lori Hawk of ELGA Credit Union.

It's a financial path Celestino and her family have already traveled.

“We had a bankruptcy filed about two years ago that's why I had them taking stuff right out of my pay check every week so that it wouldn't sit in collections,” Celestino said.

After a medical emergency or procedure, there is no magical cure to making medical bills go away other than paying them off. However, there are ways to make the payment process easier and in some cases, even lowering the cost.

First, avoid your debt being turned over to a collection agency.

“And once it ends up in a collection agency, that doctor or hospital is giving up their right to allow them to pay them directly. It causes a lot more pain. It's much easier to work with somebody who cares about you, that fixed you in the first place, than it is a collector,” said Karen Church with ELGA Credit Union.

If your debt is turned over to a collection agency, try to negotiate with them.

“I think that's really the first avenue to start before they start looking at bankruptcy and just assuming that's their only option. Sometimes we can get it down to a third of the debt. Once in a while a fourth of the debt,” Hawk said.

“Everybody wants to get paid something. They'd be better off taking what you can afford than to take nothing at all,” Church said.

Consider spreading out your medical debt. Some hospitals offer their own, internal, payment plan.

“We do have a plan. It's called ‘On Plan’ that people can sign up for a look at their own medical debt and basically spread that debt over the next four years. There is no interest charge on that,” said Cass Wisniewski of Hurley Medical Center.

There are also some proactive steps you can take to keep your medical bills as low as possible. One of the simplest: ask for an itemized bill.

“When you get your itemized list, you can find out, oh, $15 for an ice pack and $52 for a Tylenol and you can see the itemized billing and if you know you didn't get an ice pack and one's on your sheet, you know it was allotted for within the procedure,” said Hawk.

When looking for ways to lower your medical bills, don't be afraid to think outside the box. Did you know there is an online medical "blue book" that's just like the car shopping "blue book?"

“The funny thing is, you can put in to the Blue Book, ‘appendectomy,’ and find out oh, the normal cost for that may be $12,000 and a doctor who charges on the high end might be closer to $40,000. And what happens is, you can start taking down that bill automatically by what should have been charged versus what was charged,” Hawk said.

With all that said, pretty much everyone we spoke with for this story agrees: the problem of medical debt will never go away.

“And we have talked to members that have had to make tough decisions whether they're going to keep that person on specialty prescriptions that they know is helping them or to provide the regular necessities of living: food, gas, electric, all the things come into play,” Church said.

We here at FOX66 and NBC25 are ready to do what we can to prevent that from happening in our community. How? We're going to put our money where our mouth is.

Please plan on tuning in 10p, Monday on FOX66 or 11p on NBC25. We're going to share with you details of an unprecedented commitment to help erase some of that debt.


ELGA Credit Union is matching every dollar donated up to $5,000. Example: Your $50 donation becomes $100 which forgives an additional $10,000 in medical debt

Below is a donation link provided by RIP Medical Debt. Your money goes to the charity, not our station. For more information about the charity and how it works click here.

FOX66 & NBC25 News is not collecting or receiving any information provided in the donation form. The information entered into the form goes directly to the charity.

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