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Nearly half of Americans worry at least somewhat often about their ability to pay medical bills, Yahoo News/YouGov poll finds

Here's what you can do to manage medical bills
Here's what you can do to manage medical bills and the stress they can cause. (Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images)

Nearly half of Americans (46%) worry about their ability to pay medical bills at least somewhat often, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll. In a survey conducted from Jan. 25 to Jan. 29, using a nationally representative sample of 1,594 U.S. adults, Yahoo News/YouGov asked participants how often they worry about being able to pay medical bills. Twenty percent said they worry very often, 26% worry somewhat often, 31% don’t worry very often and 18% never worry about their ability to pay. Another 5% of respondents said they weren’t sure.

Polling also shows that many Americans have experienced problems with medical debt firsthand. Over a third of respondents (37%) said they have had medical bills that were past due or that they were unable to pay, while 54% said they have never personally experienced this, and 9% preferred not to say.

The stresses of medical debt

Medical debt is increasingly common, especially among older Americans, with some people even delaying treatment due to costs.

“Anxiety about medical bills can feel especially profound because it can seem like a double survival threat,” Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist and USA Today bestselling author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety, tells Yahoo Life. “There's a factor of financial survival since medical bills can be so huge, plus there's a more straightforward survival anxiety because the issue at stake is getting top-quality medical care.”

What you can do if you’re worried about medical bills

Yahoo News/YouGov also found that a majority of Americans said either that they would not know what to do (37%) or that they were unsure if they would know what to do (21%) if they got a medical bill they couldn’t pay.

If you have a medical bill you can’t pay, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends you:

  • Make sure it’s accurate. Be sure the provider accurately calculated the bill and that you actually owe it.

  • Know your rights. The No Surprises Act protects you from “surprise billing” if you have health insurance — and in some instances, even if you’re uninsured.

  • Negotiate. In the survey, 23% of respondents told Yahoo News/YouGov that they had successfully negotiated a medical bill to get the cost down, but 57% said they had never even tried to do this. CFPB says it’s worth seeing if you can negotiate the bill down to something you can afford.

  • Be wary of credit cards. You should think twice about using credit cards to pay off medical debt, because doing so could mean high interest rates and losing the ability to negotiate debt.

Carmichael says you can also check if there are any options available through your employer.

“Since the healthy function of anxiety is to stimulate preparation behaviors, people who have existing medical debt that worries them could channel that anxiety into trying to negotiate payment plans or checking to see if their employer offers a medical advocate through their HR platform who can negotiate for them,” she suggests. “Many people are unaware, but a medical advocate service is actually increasingly common through HR because employers realize that their employees can lose countless hours of productivity at work to negotiating and navigating the medical bill system.”

If you don’t have any medical debt at the moment but worry about handling possible bills in the future, Carmichael says that anxiety could motivate you to look at your options.

“For example, many people are worried about long-term care for themselves in the future as they age and [are] unable to provide,” Carmichael says. “They may want to check into long-term care insurance, learn about Medicare and other benefits for seniors or even just try to learn more about the topic of aging in general.”