When you or your loved one is sick and being treated, the last thing you want to worry about is your finances. Here are a few tips that can make things easier. This is written specifically for cancer, but the tips may help for any serious illness.
- Know your office policies and your rights with FMLA.
Depending on the kind of cancer, how strongly it affects you, and whether your work can make accommodations, you may or may not have to decrease or stop your work hours while on chemo. You can use your vacation days, but those don’t last long. If you have a short or long term disability policy, that can help cover the money lost from not working, but the longer you can’t work, the more you may worry about losing your job.
Hopefully, it won’t come to that. If it does, you should know that you do have some legal protection to help keep your job. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a government act to let people take emergency leave without losing their job or benefits. Basically, you have so many weeks of leave guaranteed by law if you are seriously ill or if you need to take care of a spouse, child, or parent who is seriously ill. You won’t get paid for that time, but you’ll have a job to go back to. (For other situations that apply or details about your rights, go to the US Department of Labor’s FMLA website.)
The hospital will probably have handouts with more information, too, and patient representatives who can explain your rights to you.
- Consider patient advocate options.
If you are confused by the medical mumbo jumbo, too sick to try to interpret it, or even too stressed to deal with it, a patient advocate can help. Patient advocates work to make sure that you get fair treatment. Their job is to talk to the hospital billing department, talk to the insurance company, talk to the mail order pharmacy, etc. They make some of the long, frustrating phone calls to try to lower your bills, increase your coverage (or make the insurance cover what you qualify for), and find you the aide that you need. Since this is their job, they have more clout, and they know better what the companies can and cannot afford.
Some medical centers have patient advocates in-house that can help you. There are also charities with advocates that you may qualify for, including charities dedicated to your specific cancer. If you have the funds, advocate agencies are available for hire. Wherever they’re from, they can take a big weight off of your shoulders by taking part of the burden.
For a more complete explanation on advocates, check out the Wikipedia article, Patient Advocacy.
- If you participate in a study, know how that affects your bills.
Participating in a study can a very good idea. Depending on the study, it can give you access to experimental treatments that may be more effective, and it can help future cancer patients get better treatment.
At the same time, you need to be aware of what the study will cover financially. Most likely, the study will cover any experimental medications and extra blood tests or scans. They may offer some travel reimbursement, but most likely, they will not cover anything that would be part of your treatment without the study. You will get paperwork that explains that (and many other things) that you will have to sign. Your study representative should explain it to you, but I recommend reading it yourself so that you know what is covered and what isn’t.
You need to know because your insurance may not cover certain things if they are done only for the study and would not have been done for your regular treatments. Your study representative may need to clear the study with your insurance before you start it, and if it gets to be a problem, you can drop the study at any time, including the time between when you sign the papers and when you actually start treatment.
If you are confused or unsure, do not be afraid to ask questions. You’re the one who’s going to be affected by the treatment and the billing, so you need to know.
- Look into financial aide options.
Ok, you’ve gotten all your benefits from the insurance, but with most policies, that doesn’t cover everything. Mine covered 70%. If you don’t have 100% coverage or a maximum out of pocket, odds are you have bills left. If your income is high enough, you can either pay them or set up a payment plan through the hospital or medical center. But what if you can’t afford it at all? It’s not like they tell you how much it costs before you start treatment.
State and national government programs offer medical financial aide based on need. Depending on the program, that may only be available if you’re under the poverty line. Each one has specific qualifications, and the hospital usually determines your eligibility once you file. If you think you’re above the poverty line but still can’t afford your bill, file anyway. First, if you’re working fewer hours than usual, you may qualify for parts of your bill if not all of it. Second, hospitals are also linked to charity organizations and use the same application to see if you qualify. If you do not qualify for government aide, you can still qualify for charity.
Oh, that sounds like work. Well, even if you do not have an advocate, most hospitals will have a financial aid office or financial aid advisors with offices close to chemo treatments – if you’re not sure, ask at the information desk. These people can help discuss your options and help you apply. Since the application probably requires proof of income, they can even check to make sure that they have everything they need on file.
If you do that and still need help, there may be other options. If your illness is long-term and keeps you from working, you may qualify for disability. If you belong to a church, it may have a charity in place or know of one. Other charities related to your illness or area may help. And if all fails, you can do a private fundraising event on facebook.
The main point is that there are options available to help, and the hospital and advocates can help you find them. Do not be afraid or ashamed to use them. If they’re willing to pay for your treatments, think of it as one less worry on your plate and move on.
- Organize your medical information.
As you go through treatments, you will get a lot of paperwork: visit summaries, treatment calendars, medication lists, lab results, scan results, insurance coverage, bills, etc. You’re going to want to keep all of that for both medical and financial reasons.
Even if you put it all in a box, you will thank yourself for keeping all your medical information in a single place. A binder or filing system is better because it is organized and easy to find different sections. When you need information in a hurry, you do not want to have to dig through piles, search your house, or freak out because you can’t find the paper you need.
You may also want to keep track of phone calls and discussions with different representatives. When calling about financial aide or billing, you may get one answer one day and a different answer another. You want to have a record of who you talked to on what date and what was said. That way if anything comes into question later, you know exactly what you were told.
When you have cancer, hospital bills are a fact. There’s no stopping them. But you can cut down on the stress and hassle that goes with them. When you’re getting treatment, you should be focused on getting healthy, not worrying about the cost.