BOSTON, Mass. — Millions of Americans are drowning in billions of dollars in medical debt, and multiple nonprofits are working to help people get hospital bills under control.
"Medical debt is an unavoidable debt people don't choose to go into it," said Jared Walker with the nonprofit Dollar For.
Walker founded Dollar For as a way to help people with medical debt by enforcing hospital charity policies. Americans currently owe more than $195 billion in medical debt.
"It doesn't take a whole lot to tip the scales for people," he added.
Never heard of charity care? The idea is pretty simple. Six out of 10 hospitals in the U.S. are nonprofits. In order to keep that status with the IRS, they have to provide charity care and financial assistance whenever possible. Meaning if you fall within a certain income range, hospitals have to waive your medical bills.
"Enforcing charity care is the lowest-hanging fruit to help hospitals right now," Walker added.
To help people struggling with medical debt, Walker and his team Dollar For have created a website. It's essentially a database of every hospital in the U.S. and its financial assistance policies. All someone has to do is input their household size, income, and debt amount. The website will then show someone what kind of assistance they qualify for and be linked with a specialist to help navigate the process.
"The problem is nobody knows about it. Hospitals don't do a great job of telling people about it. We have millions of people declaring bankruptcy or paying bills they don't have to pay," Walker said.
Other groups are also working to help Americans who are struggling, including RIP Medical Debt. They've eliminated $7 billion in medical bills for more than 4 million people.
"There's a pattern to think different about medical debt. Medical debt is not a debt of choice; it's a debt of necessity," said Eva Stahl, who serves as the group's vice president of policy.
Medical debt experts say to consider these tips to avoid medical debt:
- Sign up for public insurance if you qualify
- Check whether specifics for upcoming procedures are covered
- Always get an itemized bill to review charges
- Check providers are in-network
- Negotiate directly with your hospital
- Never put medical debt on your credit card