Reducing Medical Debt After Breast Cancer

Pink ribbon in woman's hands

As a breast cancer survivor, I know all too well the intense, emotional, and stressful journey women go through fighting cancer. And when the battle is over, you then may have to face a fight against medical debt.

I know many women who struggle with their finances after breast cancer, and it’s not because they made poor decisions. The burden of medical expenses can derail your financial plan.  According to a National Cancer Institute survey, total spending on breast cancer care in the United States topped $18.9 billion in 2016.

Although your health insurance might cover a significant portion of your treatment, you could still face high out-of-pocket costs. For example, oral chemotherapy drugs can cost thousands of dollars per month, and your insurance plan might treat them like they treat other prescriptions- some are not covered at all, and others have a high co-payment. Some insurance companies require a co-payment of 20% or more, which can result in you paying hundreds or thousands of dollars out-of-pocket each month.   

It’s easy to see why even successful corporate professionals and business owners can struggle to keep up with the costs of cancer. This can lead to financial toxicity, which is a harm to your health due to financial stress that often accompanies recovery. To avoid financial toxicity—which could put your recovery at risk—it’s important to have a plan to tackle medical payments and reduce your debt. Here, we’ll look at a few different ways.

Create an Inventory of Your Bills

Organization is essential whenever you’re working to reduce debt or manage your daily expenses. As you would create a budget, make a list of your medical bills, including amounts due, payment terms, and due dates. This gives you a great overview of what’s due when and how much you owe, and you can check off each bill as you pay it.

You can also compare this inventory with your overall budget. Based on the amount you owe, you may look for other areas of your spending where you can cut back, especially when it comes to recurring costs for non-essentials.

Review and Confirm Every Medical Bill

Every year, Americans pay around $58 billion in medical bills they shouldn’t have paid or didn’t owe. Sometimes a health care provider may send a bill that doesn’t include any insurance adjustments, and the patient assumes that that’s the total amount they owe. Other times, the bill contains an error that could be costly to you if it’s not identified.

During and after cancer treatment, it can be overwhelming when bills flood your mailbox. But before paying a bill, review each line item carefully. Compare the current bill to previous bills you’ve received and to the final Explanation of Benefits (EOB) from your insurance company. The EOB shows the amount covered by your health insurance and the remaining amount that’s owed by you. Comparing your bill to the EOB and to previous bills can help you avoid overpayments. Have you already paid this bill? Have appropriate insurance adjustments been made? Are you being billed for any procedures that you haven’t undergone, or for medicines you didn’t receive? Medical billing errors are common, so be sure to review your bills carefully.  

Ask About Payment Plans

Many hospitals offer financial assistance programs for low-income families. Depending on your income, you can apply for the program and potentially pay monthly installments interest-free and access a financial counselor at the hospital. Even if your income exceeds the limit for financial assistance, don’t hesitate to contact the hospital’s billing department and try to either negotiate a discount or ask for an interest-free payment plan.

Regardless of which option you choose, communicating with your health care providers about your finances is key. Let them know if you’re having trouble making payments. Explaining your concerns could be the difference between them sending your account to collections or offering an alternative payment option.

Avoid Letting Your Bills Turn Over to Collections

Your credit rating can be severely impacted once your bills turn over to a collection agency. This is where, again, communication with your health care providers is crucial. If you haven’t been able to keep up with paying your bills, you may receive a notice giving a final warning. Don’t ignore these warnings.

If you’ve fallen behind on payments, contact the provider and inform them of your situation. Even if you were previously denied a reduced bill or payment plan, it might help to ask again. Some providers will accept a lower amount that you owe, such as 50% of the total, if you pay it immediately, and will provide you additional time to pay the rest.

Don’t Fall Prey to Settlement or Credit Repair Scams

The unfortunate truth is that there are companies who take advantage of people with debt, offering them supposedly quick ways to restore their credit score or eliminate unpaid bills. There are no easy ways to improve your credit record or reduce debt. Watch out for any service that requires up-front payments, claims to take care of your debt, or tells you to ignore any creditors that call.

While there are legitimate debt management programs, be wary of any that provide you a plan without reviewing your personal situation or that require payment up front.

Consult with a Financial Planner

It’s helpful to have a financial planner you trust who works by your side and offers unbiased advice and guidance. From debt management to financial planning, I enjoy working with women who want to pursue financial independence and feel empowered to make informed financial decisions.

If you’re struggling to manage the high costs of cancer in addition to your other financial obligations, I can help assess your situation and offer advice on next steps you can take. Learn more about our free 30 minute introductory meeting here. When you’re ready to take the first step, email me at Rosemary@PlanToProsperFinancial.com or schedule a meeting.

About Rosemary

Rosemary Linden is the Founder of Plan to Prosper Financial Strategies, providing financial coaching to busy women and their families. She formed Plan to Prosper with the goal of helping corporate professionals and entrepreneurs address their financial planning needs and live an ideal financial life. Prior to founding Plan to Prosper, Rosemary led the financial planning & analysis divisions of companies of all sizes, from startups to Fortune 500 enterprises. Along with a B.A. in Economics, she also holds an MSBA in Financial and Tax Planning and an Executive Financial Planner graduate certificate. Learn more by visiting PlanToProsperFinancial.com or connecting with Rosemary on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.