1 in 3 U.S. Adults Has Medical Debt. Here’s How to Avoid It

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It’s easy to assume that medical debt is a problem for the uninsured. But a new Healthcare.com survey reveals that roughly 1 in 3 Americans aged 18 and over has some amount of medical debt. Many Americans are being driven into debt due to medical bills despite having insurance.

Even with coverage in place, high deductibles and hefty coinsurance and copays can still leave patients on the hook with costs their regular paychecks can’t cover. If you’re worried about landing in medical debt, the good news is that there are steps you can take to avoid it. Here are a few to get working on as soon as you can.

1. Pad your savings

The more money you have available in your savings account for surprise expenses, the less likely you’ll be to land in any sort of debt — medical debt included. If you’re not sure how much to save for medical bills, start by socking away enough money to cover your annual deductible, which is the amount of money you need to spend each year before your insurance kicks in and starts covering your healthcare expenses.

It’s also a good idea to try to set aside several hundred dollars on top of your annual deductible so you can handle expenses like copays as they arise. If you typically see the doctor five times a year and pay a $40 copay each time, you can sock away an extra $200 for those anticipated visits.

2. Have a dedicated account earmarked for medical expenses

While you could pump money into a regular savings account to cover medical costs, you may want to take advantage of one of two special healthcare savings accounts that offer tax benefits. The first is a flexible spending account (FSA), which lets you allocate a sum of money to spend on healthcare within a limited time frame (usually one year, though some of these plans have a grace period that gives you a little more time).

The second is a health savings account (HSA), which lets you set aside money for healthcare expenses that you can use at any point in your life. HSAs also allow you to invest the money you don’t need immediately so it grows into a larger sum.

Both FSA and HSA contributions go in on a tax-free basis. This means that if you put $1,000 into either account, the IRS won’t tax you on $1,000 of your earnings.

You can save in either an FSA or HSA, but you can’t have both at the same time. Also, only certain health insurance plans render you eligible for an HSA, so you’ll need to see if that’s even on the table. If it isn’t, an FSA is a good fallback option.

3. Always check your medical bills before paying them

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple billing error to leave you on the hook with a much higher tab for medical care than you should have to pay. In fact, in the aforementioned survey, 8% of people with medical debt who are insured say they landed in that boat due to having been billed incorrectly.

That’s why you must always check every medical bill you receive thoroughly before paying it. If something looks off, ask questions. Call your provider as well as your insurance company and ask why you’re being charged the amount listed. It’s especially important to dig deeper if you’re being billed for something your insurer normally covers or has covered in the past.

Medical debt can be extremely stressful and upsetting. Follow these tips in an effort to steer clear of medical debt to the greatest degree possible.

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