Courage: the Secret Ingredient for Fighting Medical Bills.
It's not complicated to tell if your bill is inaccurate or overpriced. But contesting it may stretch you outside your comfort zone. It's worth it!
It can be stressful challenging an overpriced or inaccurate medical bill. So this column is for the peacemakers, the dovish ones among us who get queasy, sweaty-palmed or otherwise anxious at the idea of confronting someone – even to stand up for themselves.
Joe Jeffries can relate. He wants to encourage you with the two words he used to give himself a boost: “ASSERT YOURSELF!!”
That’s the exhortation Joe wrote to himself at the top of his medical bill in January (see the image above). Joe is a pharmacist and reached out to me after hearing me on a podcast. He had received an overpriced medical bill for an X-ray and routine lab work at a local hospital near his home in Southeastern Ohio. The hospital charged $1,300, and after insurance billed him for $885. (The image above is the bill after he made his initial payment.)
Joe bought a copy of my book, “Never Pay the First Bill: And Other Ways to Fight the Health Care System and Win.” He followed my steps to price the bill and could see it was about six times higher than it should have been. It was a clear case of price gouging, and he knew he should fight it. But like a lot of people, Joe felt uneasy challenging the unfair bill. My phone call with him turned out to be something of a pep talk. After our chat, he made the note to be more assertive. He encourages everyone, even the nonconfrontational types, to do the same.
“I’m a pharmacist and I know this whole system is taking advantage of us,” Joe told me. “I don’t know why I was nervous about it. We have to push back. The system is geared against us. We’re up against a mammoth right now.”
Joe’s reticence to fight the system is normal when it comes to patients challenging unfair health care costs. I wrote “Never Pay the First Bill” as a tactical guide to help people stand up for themselves. But the book also provides emotional support. We all need encouragement and inspiration.
When you get an overpriced or inaccurate bill, it prompts an uncomfortable question: What are you going to do about it? If your personality is like mine, you’re itching to stand up to the health care bullies. But you might be more like my wife – gentle and sensitive and reticent to speak up.
I’ve been personally helping dozens of patients overcome the abuses of the health care system. I’m finding that the how-to methods are usually not the hard part. It’s logistically straightforward to ask for an itemized medical bill, check the prices and even sue in small claims court. But many people get paralyzed by the thought of challenging the system. It takes guts! It takes courage to stand up to a health care giant. But trust me – you can do it! And when you do you can save hundreds or thousands of dollars, per health care interaction. I’m seeing it happen time and time again.
By the way, the same courage is needed for employers who sponsor health plans. The solutions to offer better benefits at a much lower price are at their fingertips. But it takes courage to implement them.
Joe, a health care insider, had to steel himself to question his bill. But he did it. At first the hospital insisted he would get no discount. It took multiple phone calls, but he eventually got the bill reduced to $647. That’s a savings of $238 – 27% off what he originally owed.
That’s a solid discount, but Joe said he feels some regret. He knows he could have pushed harder and probably received an even better deal. For example, in my book I show how patients can sue in small claims court to protect themselves. I showed how it worked for one mom in this column. But not everyone can take the fight that far. Joe went outside his comfort zone and saved a nice chunk of money.
Plus, maybe even more important: He also stood up against an unjust system that’s harming millions of vulnerable people. He could have just paid the bill and avoided any hassle. But he knew he wasn’t just fighting for himself. He was also standing up to people who have less money or don’t have the time or resources or the ability to stand up for themselves. This is a collective problem, and the Davids must work together to beat Goliath, he told me.
“You don’t just do it for yourself,” he said. “You have to do it for others, too.”
Some thoughts to encourage peacemakers to push back against inaccurate or unfair medical bills:
Yes, you can win. Patients are applying the action steps in my book every day and saving lots of money. Even when they’re up against health care giants. You can do it, too.
You have nothing to lose. It’s simple enough to politely push back and see how the billing department responds. You’re not obligated to go to war. You can just ask nicely. Discounts are common in health care. See what they say.
Be a consumer. Treat this health care encounter like you would any other consumer transaction. If McDonald’s charged you $20 for a Big Mac, you would ask what’s up.
Challenge yourself to stand up for what’s right. It can be intimidating to stand up for yourself. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. And it feels good to protect yourself and others from being exploited.
One big reason we need to fight back: I loved this episode of Stacy Richter’s Relentless Health Value podcast about wasteful spending on insurance and billing related costs. We are wasting hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars a year in our health care system, on administrative complexity, overtreatment, ridiculous prices and more. I spent a year writing about wasted health care spending this for ProPublica. We don’t need to keep paying more. We need to demand that the industry use our money in an efficient way so we can pay less.
This “Never Pay the First Bill” review is blunt, but on the mark:
My book is less than $16 on Amazon. That’s a small investment to empower yourself and your loved ones to overcome ridiculous health care costs. The discounts are even greater on bulk buys, so contact me if that’s of interest.
Don’t mess with this reader:
“I just bought your book, but before I cracked it open, I received a bill from my spinal surgeon for $750 that was nearly three years old. I was furious. I told my doctor and their billing company to roll the bill up and stuff where a proctologist could find it. And they ate the bill! Probably not the way you want your readers to handle things, but it worked for me!”
That’s more blunt than what I would recommend. But it gets the point across!
Do you have a Victory Story about saving big money on health care? Please share it with me.
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