How to Avoid Going Broke From Surprise Medical Bills

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve had a concerning health issue but skipped visiting the doctor. Even when intense stomach cramps left me doubled over for hours, or a shooting pain in my foot felt like a stress fracture, I decided to wait and see if things would get better rather than risk a potentially costly hospital visit. (Fortunately, I healed at home.)

I’m not the only one who’s made this choice. In 2020, a survey of more than 2,500 American adults found that 32% of respondents avoided seeking medical care because of cost.

There is a real fear about the cost of seeing a doctor and how it can impact your finances. Millions of Americans receive surprise medical bills each year. That includes insured individuals, according to research by the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker. A new federal law, The No Surprises Act, went into effect Jan. 1, 2022, banning most unexpected medical charges.

This is a good start, but there’s still a lack of understanding about how our insurance systems work. We’re never really taught the basics of figuring out what is covered, what is considered in-network, how to better advocate for ourselves, and how to read and dispute itemized medical bills. Until our health system does a better job of educating us, it’s important to adopt our own strategies to get insurance-literate.

Being insured is the first step in protecting your balance sheet from a health crisis. In many cases in the U.S., health insurance is tied to employment. Other options include Medicaid (for those who qualify based on low-income), COBRA for a limited time if you lose your job and are searching for a new one, or Medicare for retirees. The self-employed can go through the Affordable Care Act health-care marketplace or private companies to secure a plan.