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Tips for Handling Large Medical Expenses

April 5, 2011 · 77 comments

in Health & Fitness, Personal Finance

This is a guest post from NerdWallet.com, which is a website dedicated to helping consumers understand and choose between credit card offers.

Medical expenses are a huge concern for most of us, whether we have insurance or not.  And when a big bill comes along, it helps to have a plan as to how you’ll handle it to your best advantage.  Here are several strategies for handling larger medical expenses when/if they come up:


While they tend to land in your life unexpectedly, the reality is we all know a medical emergency will hit at some point.  So, it’s best to be as prepared as you can.  A popular way to plan ahead is with the tax-deferred health savings accounts used by many freelance and self-employed professionals with high-deductible insurance plans.  They give you something on hand to address co-pays and portions of treatment that may not be covered by your insurance.  Bonus?  They also provide a decent tax reduction benefit.  Score!

Prevention is another effective way to avoid unnecessary medical expenses.  While it may not be the sexiest plan around (flossing, or opting out of that sky diving trip with your buddies), taking care of yourself in advance, getting the proper screenings, and practicing the best nutrition possible all go a long way towards keeping the cost of medical expenses in check.


This is actually a pretty critical point in the cost-control process, if you ask me. You’re vulnerable, in pain, and so NOT in the mood to deal with negotiated rates and facility cost comparisons.  Keeping a clear head however, can help you get the care you need at a price you can swallow.  Many large medical expenses could cost less simply by choosing an urgent care over emergency services when appropriate.  Obviously, if you have chest pains or a spurting gunshot wound then you’ll want to head for the ER without passing go or collecting two hundred dollars on the Monopoly board.  But choosing urgent care instead for things like sprains, sore throat, fever and other less critical but pressing matters can save you upwards of seventy percent or more.

You’ll also want to be sure to check your bill for errors.  There may have been a do-over of a particular X-ray due to a technician’s goof  (Hey, it happened to me) that ended up on your statement.  While they may prefer to bill for that extra x-ray,  it’s not really your responsibility to pick up the tab.  Call to get the charge removed, and also compare the charges for line items to what insurances usually pay if you’re uncovered.  You may be able to get certain fees reduced just by asking.  When the dust settles, remember this is like eating an elephant.  One bite at a time will eventually get you there, so set up a payment plan you can afford and move forward at a financial pace that’s comfortable for you. (See also this cautionary tale about medical credit cards.)

Overseas treatment:

It’s no secret that many high-ticket medical procedures cost less overseas.  Cancer treatments, joint replacements and more can all be obtained for a fraction of what those same services would cost here in the United States.  So how do you proceed with confidence? Sure, you want to get the best deal, but you also don’t want to end up at a less than safe establishment.  Medical tourism experts Lisa Chavis and Cheryl MacDonald of What Boundaries recommend checking with Joint Commission International, a third-party organization that provides accreditation to hospitals around the world.  And don’t be surprised if your Stateside insurance says they’ll pick up the tab.  More and more providers are starting to say yes, especially if it’s an approved treatment from a certified facility at huge savings over what they’d have to pay here in North America.  While covering those additional travel-related expenses, don’t forget to choose a credit card with no foreign transaction fee.

From Kris:  I kind of chuckled when I read this guest post.  It was like it was written for me since we already have several big bills from medical expenses this year.  (We went with the high deductible plan this year for the first time ever!) So, what do you do to mitigate your medical bills?  As NerdWallet mentioned, flossing is a great way to prevent future expenses, and remember to take care of yourself.  Prevention may be the best medicine.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

First Gen American April 5, 2011 at 9:30 am

This is a tough one because most people can’t predict the frequency or severity of a medical problems.

The way I do it is that I just pay extra every month for a low deductible medical plan.


krantcents April 5, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Medical expenses are more negotiable than you realize. Most doctors will allow payments and will negotiate their fees if handled it in a business like manner. That means being reasonable and make the payments. Hospitals and other facilities are receptive too. Too many people look at their medical bills become overwhelmed and just put them aside. These bills are no different than any others. In my own experience, I discovered the hospital doubled billed me for some lab work. I called and they fixed it. It is as simple as asking questions to get them to lower the bill.


retirebyforty April 5, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Thanks goodness our medical bill was covered by insurance. I think the delivery bill came close to 5 figures, we would have to liquidate a bunch of stocks to pay for that kind of bill. I think oversea treatment would be great. I heard Thailand do a lot of medical businesses.


Jenna April 5, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Having an emergency fund is key for medical bills. I got sick while traveling abroad while in college and it totally messed up the rest of my semester budget.


Forex Trader January 5, 2012 at 12:51 am

Medical insurance is a must have for everyone. Too many people have gone without, or with inadequate coverage, with disastrous consequences.


Kris January 5, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Very true. My heart breaks for those that do not have insurance.


Thomas Schofields September 3, 2012 at 6:48 am

Thanks goodness our medical bill was covered by insurance. I think the delivery bill came close to 5 figures, we would have to liquidate a bunch of stocks to pay for that kind of bill. I think oversea treatment would be great. I heard Thailand do a lot of medical businesses.


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