How to pay off your medical debt in NC

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Unpaid medical bills are a burden on millions in North Carolina.

More than a third of the state’s population was in medical debt collection at the end of 2020, according to the most recent data available from the Urban Institute.

Medical debt alone, not counting credit cards and student loans, has drawn more than 2 million North Carolina into collections, The News & Observer reported.

If you have low income, are uninsured, or are in a situation that has led to mounting medical debt, here are some ways to get help.

North Carolina-based health systems offer assistance

Regional health systems like Atrium Health and Novant Health provide financial assistance programs for low-income patients and those who are uninsured.

Through its Coverage Assistance and Financial Assistance Program, Atrium patients in the Carolinas and Georgia who are uninsured may be eligible for assistance if their balance is greater than or equal to $10,000.

Atrium’s financial aid scoring program for residents of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia who are uninsured and have received outpatient or medical group hospital services that resulted in a lower balance to $10,000 can also apply for debt relief.

The regional hospital system also offers a hardship settlement discount for people who have suffered “a catastrophic medical event” for “very large medical bills in relation to their financial resources”.

Further information on Atrium’s programs is available online at atriumhealth.org/for-patients-visitors/financial-assistance. Patients can also contact Atrium by phone at 704-512-7171.

Novant says it will provide financial assistance to patients whose care meets the eligibility criteria under its “Charitable care policy. Those eligible could potentially get a “100% discount or free treatment” under the scheme.

Additional details about Novant’s policies and qualification requirements can be found at www.novanthealth.org/home/patients–visitors/your-healthcare-costs/financial-assistance-for-the-uninsured.aspx

What is required to apply for medical debt forgiveness

These tips from Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy explain how to take advantage of these programs:

  • Ask for a copy of the hospital’s financial aid policy.

  • Be prepared to provide information about your income and expenses on the application.

  • Ask your provider how long it takes to process your request.

  • If your bill is in collection, ask your collection agent to suspend collections while you seek financial assistance.

  • Ask your provider about the status of your request.

The Patient Advocate Foundation provides free case management services for patients who are being treated for a serious medical condition. Their services include appealing insurance denials, applications for free or low-cost health care programs, and discounts on medical bills.

Some medical bill defense companies offer similar services to PAF for a fee. Here are a few :

If you have medical bills from treatment for a specific condition, you can visit the Patient Access Network or the HealthWell Foundation to find out if you are eligible for help with drug costs or insurance premiums.

Look for an optional hospital payment plan

Payment plans are one of the most common ways to settle medical debt, according to NerdWalleta website that provides information on navigating financial decisions.

The minimum amount you can pay on a payment plan depends on your bill amount and the terms you negotiate with your medical provider, the website says. Typically, the bill is split into several equal payments until the total is covered.

Income-related hardship plans are similar to standard payment plans and are designed for people with low incomes and high medical debt, explains NerdWallet. These plans can divide the total amount you owe into more manageable payments.

It is recommended that patients speak with their provider to see if these options are available.

Try medical credit cards and unsecured credit

If your provider doesn’t accept payment plans, you can try applying for a medical credit card.

These credit cards are typically used for specific procedures and have an interest-free period of six to 12 months, according to NerdWallet. If you can’t pay off your debt within that time frame, it may be better to look for another option because you could be hit with a deferred interest rate that would make your debt more expensive, says NerdWallet.

You can also explore unsecured credit options like personal loans and zero rate credit cards. Zero-rate credit cards can be a good avenue if you don’t qualify for a payment plan or medical credit card, but you’ll need outstanding credit to qualify.

Consult a Medical Billing Advocate

If you feel overwhelmed with hospital bills, you may want to consider hiring a medical billing advocate.

According Very good health, a health information site. They may even be able to reduce the amount you owe on your bills.

You should consider hiring a medical bill advocate if:

  • You don’t understand your medical bills

  • You have a large number of invoices

  • You face a chronic medical condition that involves a constant stream of bills

  • Your health insurance refuses to cover all or part of your medical expenses

  • You don’t have insurance and you’re not good at negotiating

  • You are responsible for managing someone else’s medical bills

Medical billing advocates can charge an hourly rate ranging from $75 to $350, or a percentage of the amount by which they get your bills reduced, says Verywell Health.

Will Doran, News & Observer editor, contributed to this report.

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Evan Moore is a duty reporter for the Charlotte Observer. He grew up in Denver, North Carolina, where he previously worked as a reporter for the Denver Citizen, and graduated from UNC Charlotte.


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John A. Bogar