Stressed Over Unplanned Medical Bills? Here Is A Plan.

In August of 2014, at 39 years old, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer.  Not only had I started a job at a new employer earlier that year making $8 less per hour than at my previous employer of 13 years (see my article called Stepping Back in Order to Step Up Your Career), but also was navigating the life of a newly single/divorced mom of two teenage boys.  In addition to the surprising medical news, I was also told by my new employer that our company had been sold and therefore might mean the loss of my job if I didn’t move into a completely new department and role. 

Did I have a plan for all of this? 

Absolutely not…and so I went into extreme “fight or flight” mode.  I had no idea where to even begin.  The shock and stress looming over me caused many thoughts of what I would do if I were to lose my job, need chemotherapy, or worse.  Would I need to go live with my parents at this age?  Would I go bankrupt?  The thoughts were enough to send anyone into a downward spiral of deep depression. 

Did I make it through successfully?

Yes…I did…and so can you.  If you are currently experiencing a situation similar to mine or worse and it seems your financial situation is moving towards rock bottom, please don’t panic.  There are ways to overcome this often-normal life dilemma and swim back to the shore of “I survived this”. 

Read on to discover the seven essential plans that I came up with to manage this unfortunate and abrupt disruption of my life’s financial fate.

Plan #1 – Reach out to your company’s HR department about your options with FMLA and paid-time off.

The first thing that you want to do when needing to be out of work for an unexpected medical illness, for yourself or a family member, is to determine what your rights are under FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), what and if any short-term disability payments are available and how much paid time off you are eligible for.  Your company’s HR department should be able to assist you with all of this planning.  For employers with less than 50 employees, FMLA does not apply so you will need to ask or research the employee handbook/guidelines for how your specific employer deals with unpaid medical leave. 

In my particular case, I was able to apply for FMLA and short-term disability payments but still had to use paid time off for the first 8 days out of work.  If you or your loved one’s medical emergency cannot be planned, such as surgery after a heart attack, stroke, car accident, or other sudden “need to be rushed to the hospital ASAP” issues, ask a family member or friend to contact your company’s HR department for you to ask the above questions.  The paperwork can all be worked out within a few days or so.  

Plan #2 – Call your health insurance company to find out what medical costs are covered.

Once you start getting information on your physician’s plan for you or your family member’s medical treatment, make a call to your health insurance company to find out what all is covered and for how much.  Most often this will be a certain percentage such 70 or 80 percent after your plan’s deductible.  Sometimes the insurance company will cover 100 percent for certain procedures.  An example of this is when I was trying to determine if my breast surgeon’s advice of my having bilateral mastectomy was truly necessary.  Upon investigation, I found out that my insurance company paid almost 100 percent to perform the blood test that would show if I had the inherited gene that increases your chance of breast cancer by 80 percent.  This very fortunate and expensive test covered by my insurance helped me with making many more important medical decisions as I moved forward with treatment.

Plan #3 – Try not to worry about anything while in the hospital.

While I know that it is truly difficult to not worry about the outcome of your or your family member’s health or financial situation while in the hospital, I would advise to just let it all go while you are there.  A few days or so will not make that huge of a difference in getting the financial part figured out so just get rest and spend your time recouping enough to be released from the hospital.  Unfortunately, these days hospitals release patients almost too quickly so as to comply with health insurance guidelines.  After being put under general anesthesia and having a breast lumpectomy, along with two lymph nodes removed, I was released from the hospital within hours after surgery.  I was in no way shape or form able to remotely consider my financial state or any other matter at that time. 

Plan #4 – Let the medical bills pile up about a month after the procedure or surgery.

Medical bills can add up quickly.  Quite often, these bills are pouring into your mailbox while you are still recovering and/or receiving continuing medical treatment.  This can unfortunately cause a great deal of stress.  Since I was undergoing radiation treatment at the time my breast lumpectomy and other previous bills started piling up, I was just too tired to even open them.  I found out later that it takes about two months before a hospital starts sending you threats of a collection’s agency.  Therefore, I would advise to just not worry about them for about a month.  Nothing terrible will happen until you get closer to the two-month state of owing the debt.

Plan #5 – Sort all bills by medical supplier and scrutinize each one to ensure that you agree with all costs.

Once you have had about a month to recover a little, take a little time to sort through and organize all of your medical bills by supplier and month billed.  You will want to look at the most recent bill and then really study what is being charged, how much your insurance plan has covered and what is left over for you to pay.  Make sure that your insurance company has covered the correct percentage of the bill.  If they have not paid what you think they should have paid, then you will want to make a call to them to find out why it looks incorrect. 

Plan #6 – Contact each payor and ask for ways to apply for financial assistance or consolidation of bills.

Now that you have organized all medical bills by supplier, the best thing you can do before paying any of them is to give each one a call and ask if they have a financial assistance program and/or way to consolidate the bills.  Unfortunately, I did not realize this option even existed at first, but then, in desperation upon being sent to a collections agency because I couldn’t pay $12,000 within two months, I started asking for help.  The cancer center where I was going to for my radiation and oncology treatments was so helpful…all I had to do was ask. The financial counselor there was the one who facilitated getting 50% of my hospital bills reduced and then setting up a monthly payment plan that I could afford for the remaining balance.  She was also able to consolidate many bills (surgeon, hospital, pharmacy, etc.) into one.    

Plan #7 – Celebrate your recovery and the paying off of one bill at a time.

This is the best and most satisfying part of all…that is paying off the medical bills…one by one.  Yes, you have more than likely been drastically set back on you finance plan to success; however, life issues like unforeseen medical emergencies are almost 100 percent likely to happen.  If you are like me and didn’t already have a three to six-month savings plan in place for this type of issue, you can still overcome it.  Take one small bill at a time, pay it off, then move on to the next one.  And through it all, keep telling yourself that this is just a minor setback for a short period in your life.  You will and can survive with the right mindset and plans in place.

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