Ouch: taking the sting out of medical expenses

Medical expenses are a burden whenever they hit, but a recent study found they're most common around this time of year.

The study found that one in six families makes a major medical payment in any given year, and they tended to occur in the first few months of the year. The study found the median payment was $1,143 and most households take more than a year to recover from the hit.

Although the reason for the timing is unclear, researchers at economic think tank JP Morgan Chase Institute who conducted the study hypothesize that people are either putting off treatment or bill paying until tax refund time when they can afford it, or simply facing a fresh new set of deductibles and other out-of-pocket insurance expenses to meet for the year.

We gathered a few expert tips for managing the pain of medical expenses:

SAVE

It's much easier to bear big expenses when you have some emergency savings.

If you don't have much set aside, you aren't alone. Two-thirds of Americans would have difficulty coming up with the money to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Start small, automate your savings and try to keep your hands off it unless you really need it.

Other preventative steps include staying within your health insurer's network or bundling your care so you reach deductibles sooner. You may also want to get an estimate of costs ahead of time so you can better prepare. Some providers and insurers will help with this or you can use Amino, a free online service that estimates the costs of many common health care procedures.

VERIFY

Review all your bills carefully when they arrive. About half of medical bills contain errors, said Caitlin Donovan of the National Patient Advocate Foundation. Make sure you are being billed only for services and goods you received.

If you feel like you are being billed for something that should be covered by insurance, reach out to your plan for an explanation. You can also appeal any decision by your insurer not to pay.

There are companies that will audit bills for you to make sure they are correct. Some, like Remedy, will only take a percentage of what they save you as payment. You can also reach out to a patient advocate organization for assistance.

SEEK AID

If you cannot foot the bill at all, seek help as soon as possible.

Hospitals are often willing to negotiate the amount you owe or set up a payment plan. Ask if they have a financial assistance plan or know of one that could help you. There are many nonprofit organizations set up specifically to help people manage their medical bills.

Also consider seeking help from friends or family with a crowdfunding page, such as Gofundme.com.



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