Health

7 ways you can protect yourself from outrageous medical bills

Make sure the proposed test or treatment is necessary. Ask what might happen if you don't get the service right away.
Make sure the proposed test or treatment is necessary. Ask what might happen if you don't get the service right away.
Eva Bee/Ikon Images/Getty Images

A doctor offers a surgical add-on that leads to a $1,877 bill for a young girl's ear piercing. A patient protests unnecessary scans to identify and treat her breast cysts. A study shows intensive care-level treatment is overused.

ProPublica has been documenting the myriad ways the health system wastes money on unnecessary services, often shifting the costs to consumers. But there are ways patients can protect themselves.

We consulted the bill-wrangling professionals at Medliminal, one of a number of companies that negotiate to reduce charges for a share of the savings. After years of jousting with hospitals, medical providers and insurers, their key advice for patients and their families is to be assertive and proactive.

Here are seven steps patients can take to protect themselves:

  1. Make sure the proposed test or treatment is necessary. Ask what might happen if you don't get the service right away.
  2. Ask the price before the test or treatment. (Prices may not be negotiable if they're set by an insurance company contract.)
  3. Write on your financial agreement that you agree to pay for all treatment by providers who are in-network, which means they have set rates with your insurance company. (The medical providers may not accept the altered form.)
  4. If possible, get the billing codes the medical provider will use to charge you and contact your insurance provider to make sure that each code is covered.
  5. If you are having a procedure, try to get the National Provider Identifier and/or Tax ID number of the surgeons, anesthesiologists and their assistants. Contact your insurance company to see whether the providers are in-network, which results in the negotiated rates.
  6. Demand an itemized bill and then look at each specific charge. Medical bills are often riddled with errors.
  7. Ask whether the provider has a financial assistance policy, which could result in a sliding scale discount. Many people qualify, and discounts can range from 20 percent to 70 percent.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom based in New York. You can follow Marshall Allen on Twitter:@marshall_allen. Have you seen examples of wasted health care spending? Share them with Marshall here.

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