“We see it all the time. People panic when they get that hospital bill, put it on their credit card, and ruin their credit for the future. They think they need to make it go away,” says Jared Walker, founder of Dollar For–a nonprofit that helps families through medical crisis.
There is actually a way to get medical debt to go away with no lasting consequences. The Affordable Care Act makes it possible for low income patients to have their medical fees waived. (See our post: Medical Debt? Forgiven)
A $15,000 bill can go to $0 just like that. But first, you have to make your way through the confusing process hospitals have created to get that financial assistance, known as charity care.
In the best-case scenario, hospitals don’t make it easy to find information about their charity care policies. In the worst case, they may not be compliant with the law and may even be misinforming patients that they have to pay.
Dollar For has provided over $20 million in medical debt relief, working with patients in every state to eliminate their medical bills. Low income moms and families need to know that they are eligible to receive free medical care. To help, Jared shares with us some key things to know about charity care and how to get it.
7 Truths About Charity Care
- Charity care is a status, not a one-time service. Jared emphasizes that there is no limit to how many times you can apply for financial assistance. Even if a patient’s approval letter states that it is a one-time approval, this is not true. Most often, approval letters will indicate a range of time, such as 6 months, during which medical services are covered. After that time, you may need to reapply for charity care status, providing proof you still meet the requirements. While most patients apply in response to a medical crisis and its resulting bill, charity care status can also be pursued ahead of time if you know a major procedure may be in your future.
- You are eligible even if you have insurance. Patients are sometimes denied charity care status on the basis of having some form of commercial insurance. But they may still be unable to meet their deductible or pay their bill. Dollar For is quite willing to go toe to toe with hospitals who try to deny patient eligibility and are typically able to get patients approved for financial assistance. The primary consideration is a patient’s current financial circumstances and income.
- Charity Care funds do not run out. Hospitals are required to waive medical bills for eligible patients, no matter the cost of the bill. It is not like a pool of money that is in danger of running out towards the end of the year, Jared explains. So patients do not need to fear. “We’ve gotten $30 medical bills waived. We’ve gotten $500,000 medical bills waived,” Jared says. “There is no limit.”
- There is no minimum bill requirement to be eligible for financial assistance. Jared clarifies that this is not legal, even if a hospital says so. Eligibility depends entirely on the patient’s income range which qualifies them for assistance.
- You can get your bill waived even if you are in the process of paying for it. “Payment plans are not contracts that nullify financial assistance,” Jared says. You can apply for charity care status at any time so long as you meet the income requirements. Once approved the hospital must waive the bill and should refund whatever you may have paid to that point. Dollar For has seen many successful cases of patients being refunded and their debt canceled moving forward. You can also apply for assistance any time your financial circumstances change. For example, if you can no longer work due to your medical situation.
- Hospital bills can be waived even if they are in collections. There is a magic number when it comes to charity care: 240. According to the law, every patient is entitled to 240 days to apply for financial assistance from the time they receive their first hospital bill. All hospitals and states must comply with this. However, many hospitals send bills to collections after just 120 days, causing patients to panic or believe it is too late to get help. “You can be in collections and still eligible for financial assistance,” Jared says. “Hospitals can pull the bill out of collections as easily as they put it in.”
- All hospital service providers should honor charity care. Getting a hospital bill in the mail is often only the tip of the iceberg, quickly followed by a series of bills from other providers such as labs and outside vendors. Keeping up with it and watching the debt grow can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. But financial assistance is available even for these additional bills. The simplest thing to do is call each provider and ask them to put the bill on hold while the charity care application is processed by the hospital. Remember, you have 240 days to apply. Once approved, all bills should be waived
Even knowing these things, the process can be incredibly complex. “You need an advocate. It gets so overwhelming,” Jared says. So don’t hesitate to reach out to Dollar For to ask for help. Their team of patient advocates are happy to journey with you and are just a phone call or text away. Best of all their services are completely free–just like your medical bills can be.
Get started at Dollarfor.org/help or email
This article adapted from a video interview of Jared Walker and Charlee Tchividjian. Watch the video here.