Options for massive medical bills for retired mom?
April 30, 2016 2:32 PM   Subscribe

My 61-year-old mom is worried she's going to have to declare bankruptcy due to hospital bills. Is there any way to avoid this?

My mom has had a series of major surgeries over the last couple of years, and has also gone on disability from her job and transitioned to retirement. She's on a fixed income and lives with my grandparents, taking care of them as they are not able to get along on their own. The hospital keeps sending her bills for $100k+. She's worried she's going to have to file for bankruptcy.

Is there any way to deal with this where she can send the hospital a certain amount of money per month and avoid bankruptcy? It just doesn't make any sense to me that they'd demand $1000 a month from her, force her into bankruptcy, and get paid nothing versus getting $100 a month from her (forever, I know, but at least they're getting paid something). But then, the world doesn't make any sense and humanity's propensity for evil is limitless, so maybe that's just how it works.

She's had a really bad last couple of years, and this is a terrible capper. I'd like to give her some kind of good news about this, but I really have no experience here and don't know what the options are. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What sort of health care coverage, if any, does she have? If she eligible for Medicaid? Reach out to patient services at the hospital to see if there's someone you could speak to regarding her coverage options. I might also speak to someone who can walk you through what bankruptcy might look like for her, because sometimes in cases like this, bankruptcy is not the worst option (the worst option is killing yourself and draining assets that a bankruptcy might protect trying to pay back an outrageous debt).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:39 PM on April 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, hospitals will often cut deals to make it so that they get something over time (rather than having to take legal action) but you have to talk with them first to work something out. Chances for making this work are better if it is a non-profit hospital, I believe.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 2:42 PM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely call the hospital and talk to them. We once pled complete lack of money, which was totally true, and got an entire surgery forgiven. Another time we got a much more reasonable interest free payment plan just for asking. If she is still a patient going in for follow ups, she could also ask to speak to a social worker at the hospital when she is there, who may be able to connect her with additional community resources.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:44 PM on April 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

There's a very good chance that the financial aid application is on the back of her hospital bills, FYI. There's also a decent chance that she owes to more places than she thinks she does - I once had a single MRI that was billed by three separate places (the hospital I was in, the radiologist who looked at the MRI, and the doctor who ordered it.) So it may be several different applications to fill out.
posted by SMPA at 3:24 PM on April 30, 2016

If your mom is in the US, it's likely that hospital and any other medical creditors will be willing to cut a deal. (One of my local hospitals sends a bill for emergency room patients without insurance that Notes in BIG TYPE that the amount due is 50% less if you pay within 30 days.) if it's too hard for her to cope perhaps you or someone else can negotiate for her. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 3:44 PM on April 30, 2016

There are people whose job it is to advocate on behalf of folks like your mother. You want a medical bill advocate, like these folks here.

You might also want to check in with local social services agencies, they may be able to advise on how to navigate getting some more assistance.
posted by suelac at 3:57 PM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Note that (unless she has a big pile of assets you haven't mentioned) the hospital has very little incentive to sue her, as Social Security and SSI/SSDI payments are immune from attachment by civil creditors. This means that, as long as she keeps that money in its own separate account (there are, or used to be, problems if you commingled funds), even if they got a judgment against her, they would not be able to collect those funds. If I'm understanding you correctly and her income is either SS or federal disability payments, It's definitely worth making sure the hospital knows that. Here is a template letter you can use.
posted by praemunire at 4:10 PM on April 30, 2016

Is there some reason she isn't willing to just ignore the bills?

Filing for bankruptcy is going to ruin her credit just as much as having delinquent bills is, and it sounds like she has bigger problems than what the credit bureaus think of her credit score. It makes sense if you have many years ahead of you and you need the credit, but presuming she isn't aiming to buy a house or a new car, I don't see why you'd go through all the stress and hassle of going to court when you don't have to. You should google the hospital(s) in question just to double-check, but hospitals almost never sue.
posted by zug at 4:58 PM on April 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was in this position. I was not working, on disability, etc. Because it was a state hospital with its own AG office, the AG threatened to suspend my driver's license even in the event of bankruptcy. It was unfun. My dad hooked me up with patient services, who arranged for Medicaid to cover the majority of the expenses through a medical crisis program. (My surgery was for cancer and my surgeon refused to cancel it when I told her I couldn't pay. She did the surgery for free as a result, but I still owed the hospital and the anesthesiologist.) I *tried* to make arrangements for low payments, but the hospital wouldn't go for it.
posted by xyzzy at 5:05 PM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Negotiating with the hospital might be a good idea if you have a plausible hardship story, maybe you can get some of the debt forgiven.

When I was in a similar situation with my father, I just sent a modest amount of money every month (I think it was $20) and this worked fine. I never negotiated with anybody. I missed a payment once, got a nastygram demanding immediate payment in full, ignored it, kept paying, and nothing was ever said about it again.

You and your mom are in charge here. The hospital will probably be more accommodating than it seems. You can choose not to pay them at all. There would be consequences from that, but they wouldn't be fatal. Bankruptcy isn't fatal either. Consider all your options and don't get buffaloed by notices with STERN DEMANDS IN CAPITAL LETTERS.
posted by mattu at 8:10 AM on May 1, 2016

Depending on her health care coverage at the time, couldn't tell if she had some kind of health insurance at the time and it didn't cover the surgeries for some reason, every state now has an office dedicated to helping people wrangle unfair insurance denials.

For example, here's a page for Illinois:

Otherwise, there are many companies that specialize in wrangling with hospitals in these kinds of situations. Consumer Reports or Consumers Union may have some recommendations on specific companies to use for this:

posted by forkisbetter at 4:25 PM on May 1, 2016

My brother was in that situation, talked to patient services, and negotiated a $50/month payment. I doubt he'll live long enough to pay it off. But the hospital was quite civilized once he got past the clerk who threatened to sic collection agencies on him. Many hospitals have social workers, and if not, I'd go to one of the chaplains. They would be able to at least tell you who to approach. But hospitals deal with this all the time, and probably have some procedure just waiting for you to ask for a longterm installment plan.
I hope she's getting on to Medicaid soon!
posted by my-sharona at 5:11 PM on May 1, 2016

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