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Medical Billing: What Are Patients’ Legal Rights?

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Chris Dehler
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There are many things in life that we can’t predict, and medical debt is one of them. You never know when you will trip and fall or come down with a sudden sickness that will leave you at the doctor’s office or in a hospital room. After the doctors patch you up and get you home, you will likely be unsurprised to see a large bill in your mailbox.

The arrival of a major medical bill can be jarring, but it is important that you tackle this situation as soon as possible. Delaying payment will only cause additional stress. The important thing to remember is that there are solutions to lighten the burden. Below are some responsibilities of the doctor and your rights as a patient.

A Right to Secure Information

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One of the most important rights you have as a patient is that your medical and personal information should be protected, so it is not stolen or used inappropriately. Whenever you go to the doctor, you likely sign a HIPAA form. This stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and it was enacted to ensure that your private information does not end up in the wrong hands. If it does, you can pursue legal action against the doctor or their practice.

Just about any piece of private data, from your email address to a social security number, can be used maliciously by hackers and criminals. On top of that, no one has the right to know about your medical debt except for you and the hospital. To avoid leakage and aid in protecting your right to security, medical offices must also follow the HIPAA security rule, which states that medical offices must have technical safeguards or limitations in place that help to keep your personal information private.

At minimum, these provisions include the tactics you use to keep your home computer secure, such as anti-virus software and complex passwords that use letters, numbers, and special characters.

Proper handling is also key. Physical files at the medical office should be placed in a storage room so they cannot be grabbed and stolen by thieves. These days, a lot of paperwork is scanned into systems, but data can be accidentally deleted or leaked by cyber thieves, so files should also be stored on backup systems that are encrypted and password protected so data can be restored if lost. If data is stolen, the medical office should inform the victims immediately and offer solutions.

Alternate Ways to Pay Your Bill

When you get a medical bill, you do not have to pay it immediately or fully. Instead, you have the right to talk with the hospital or billing office and ask any questions you may have. The first thing you should do is review your bill for errors. Search for anything out of place. So, if you are charged for a three-night stay at the hospital but you were in and out the same day for a rash, you should bring this up to the medical office so they can amend the bill.

There is a good chance that you will not be able to pay the bill in full, so you have the right to ask about alternative payment options. If you are on a fixed income, call the billing team and be honest about how much you can realistically afford and see how they can accommodate. Some hospitals offer their own credit card that you can pay off over time. Whatever you do, make sure not to use your personal credit cards or take out loans to tackle the issue, or you will likely just acquire more debt and have a steeper hill to climb.

You can also go other routes to pay your medical bills. Search online for organizations that assist patients with particular ailments, such as the HealthWell Foundation or the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. There are other avenues you can try as well, such as starting a Kickstarter or GoFundMe page. Some people may even consider filing for bankruptcy, but keep in mind that doing so could cause irreparable damage to your credit.

Your Rights with Collections Agencies

If you fail to make your payments or acknowledge your bill, it is almost certain that your account will be transferred to a collections agency, but you have rights here as well. As soon as the debt collectors get your file and begin action on your account, it will reflect negatively on your credit report. After that, you will begin to receive phone calls, and if they cannot reach you, then they will also try calling those you are associated with, in an attempt to get a hold of you. The entire process can be quite alarming.

When you get a call from a debt collector, the first thing you want to do is review your credit report and ensure that all accounts and details are accurate. If you find a medical debt on your report that you believe is inaccurate, then you have the right to dispute the record with the credit reporting agency. There are templates online for writing a dispute letter, but essentially you will point out the faulty records and ask them to investigate and provide answers.

If you are going through the dispute process or you are being overwhelmed with collection calls, you also have the right to send a cease and desist letter to stop contact. When you do, don’t mention owing any debt. Just express your urge to stop the calls and ask for a receipt that proves that they received your letter. Of course, if this is your debt, then you will want to work with the debt collector to pay it off, so it comes off of your credit report. If you cannot pay in full, the collector will likely offer a payment plan.

Yes, receiving that alarming medical bill can cause quite a fright, but by understanding your legal rights, you can make the payment process more manageable.

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