Don't Pay a Medical Bill Until You Do These 5 Things

Up to 80 percent of medical bills contain errors, experts say. Take these steps to check that the charges are legit, lower costs, and avoid unhappy surprises.

Don't Pay a Medical Bill Until You Do These 5 Things

Let's state the obvious: Medical bills can be expensive. Costly tests, medications, and procedures can add up, causing sticker shock when you finally receive a bill. Before you shell out anything, look closely at those medical charges to make sure you're being billed properly, ask if there's any negotiating room, and understand exactly what you owe and why. In other words, don't always take that balance due at face value. Here are five smart steps to take before paying that pricey medical bill.

01 of 05

Verify your information.

First, check that the bill was run through your insurance and that your insurance information is correct, says Adria Gross, a medical billing advocate and founder of MedWise Insurance Advocacy. Occasionally, a billing company mails a bill without running it through insurance. Or there might be an error—even leaving one number off your insurance ID can make your policy seem invalid.

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02 of 05

Ask for an itemized list.

Providers should send a line-item breakdown that shows how they came up with the total. If your bill doesn't have one, ask for it. Then make sure everything on the bill is a test, medication, or service you received during your appointment or hospital stay, advises Teresa Brown, senior director of the hospital division at Medliminal, a company that specializes in medical cost containment. "Check units and quantities," she says. "I was talking to somebody whose husband had a CT scan, and they billed her twice. We've seen a toothbrush billed for $1,000. So look for extra zeros and other numbers."

03 of 05

Research billing codes.

Every medical procedure has a corresponding billing code, which your doctor's office enters to tell insurers what was done and help them process the claim, according to Caitlin Donovan, senior director of public relations at the National Patient Advocate Foundation. If you were denied coverage for a procedure, determine if the wrong code was used: Type the code from your bill or insurance claim into a code search tool, like the one on

If you notice a potential error, ask your doctor's office about it. They may be able to resubmit your claim with corrected coding. "I also recommend asking your insurer how a procedure needs to be coded to get covered," says Donovan.

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04 of 05

Don't be afraid to negotiate.

Even if you've done your homework, triple-checked your bill for accuracy, and appealed; you may still end up owing more than you can afford. If that's the case, go to or to get a sense of a reasonable charge for a particular service. That will give you a negotiating starting point, says Donovan. People want to get paid, so if they see you're making an effort to tackle the bill, providers should be willing to set up a payment plan and work within your financial constraints. They may even offer a lower lump-sum cost.

05 of 05

Take care of it quickly.

Don't let that bill drift to the bottom of your to-do list. Call the billing office (or your insurance company, if it handles payment for you) as soon as you can if you think there's an error. If you don't contact the billing office or pay the bill, the provider will likely send it to a collection agency.

How to Prevent Problems

Know your network. A common way to rack up charges is by using an out-of-network provider, since your insurance usually only covers a smaller portion of the cost, if anything. For any visit or procedure, check that the provider or lab is in-network. Before an emergency, know which hospital in your area is in-network (but be aware that some doctors working there may still not be on your plan). Discuss your policy with your benefits department or call your provider to get clarity.

Have a cost conversation. Ask your doctor about cost-effective alternatives, suggests Donovan. If doctors know that budget is a concern, they may opt for a more affordable treatment or a generic drug.

Be your own advocate. Take notes at your appointments (and the appointments of anyone you care for) and ask if you can record the visit. Note what was done and any treatment directions so you have a reference if something strange appears on a bill.

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