Many Millennials, already burdened with student debt, are now finding another unwelcome envelope in their mailboxes: past-due bills for their medical debts. Though younger people tend to be healthier than their older peers, they are as likely – or even more likely – to have such debt, according to a study by the Urban Institute. For example, the study found that 21.1% of those 18 to 24 and 27.8% of those 25 to 34 had past-due medical debts in 2015. For people 55 to 64, by contrast, the percentage was 19.2%. On the positive side, all of those percentages were down from a prior study in 2012.
Why Do Millennials Face Medical Debt and What Should They Do?
There are several reasons why younger people can find themselves struggling with medical debt. For one, they are less likely to have health insurance. Older workers may have settled into jobs with employer-paid health plans, and most Americans over 65 are eligible for the federal government’s Medicare program. For another, younger people may not have had time to build up enough savings to pay off a big medical bill, should they ever face one. If you’re in that situation, here are a few things you can do to keep medical debt from adding financial insult to injury. (For more, see Insurance for Millennials.)
Get Health Insurance
While having a health insurance policy is no guarantee against medical debt, it can make a significant difference. The Urban Institute study, for example, found that 22.8% of people with health insurance reported past-due medical debts, compared to 30.5% of people without it.
Despite the recent effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, the law remains in place at this writing, making health insurance widely available. That includes the act’s provision that allows people under age 26 to remain on a parent’s health insurance policy even if they are financially independent and no longer living with their parent.
Start an Emergency Fund
The traditional advice to stash away three to six months’ worth of living expenses in an emergency fund may be unrealistic for many younger people, but it’s still a worthy goal to build toward. One way to make it a little easier is to earmark any extra income beyond your regular paycheck for that purpose. This might include a bonus at work, a tax refund, income from a side gig, or at least a portion of your birthday money. If you need to draw on the account for a medical bill or other expense, try to start replenishing it as soon as you are able.
Know Your Rights
It may be tempting to let medical bills pile up, unopened, on your kitchen counter. However, that will only lead to bigger problems, including serious damage to your credit score. Therefore, if you receive one, try these steps:
- First, make sure you really owe the debt. Busy hospitals and doctor’s offices are known to make billing mistakes. Check your bill and question any charges for services you don’t remember receiving.
- Call your insurer. Your insurance company may have denied all or part of your claim in error. That can happen, for example, if the provider used the wrong billing code for a service. If you disagree with your insurer’s decision, you have a right to appeal it.
- Try to work it out with the provider. If you can’t pay the bill in full, see if you can negotiate a lower fee or ask if you can spread your payments out over a series of months. Some providers would rather accept less money now than alienate a patient or have to turn your account over to a collection agency.
If you do find yourself dealing with a collection agency, bear in mind that you have rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, one of which is not to be harassed. You can learn more about this law, which covers medical and other kinds of personal debts, on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website. (For more, see 5 Things Debt Collectors Are Forbidden to Do.)
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) also has sample letters on its website that you can use to deal with debt collectors. Finally, be wary of companies that promise – for a fee, of course – to make your debts disappear. This is an area that is rife with scams, the FTC warns.
The Bottom Line
The idea that Millennials, due to the fact of being young, are physically robust enough not to need health insurance is a myth. Anyone can suffer a medical emergency, and plenty of Millennials experience just that. In today’s health system in America, it doesn’t take much to generate significant debt.
So get yourself health insurance and start putting money away in an emergency fund for that inevitable rainy day. If you are faced with medical debt, do so armed with the knowledge of what your provider can and can’t require of you. A little knowledge can go a long way. (For more, see 4 Financial Recommendations for Millennials.)