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Hospital bills piling up? Know your rights under Illinois law

An entirely unscientific poll of friends and family recently found that medical bills cause more stress than any other type of debt. Student loans come in a close second, but medical bills carried a little more emotional weight. College may have prepared you for a more rewarding work life, but the doctors and nurses at the hospital actually saved your life. And, while it is hard to say no to school, it is much, much harder to say no to, say, giving birth or having your appendix removed.

Our casual survey also uncovered a common vague suspicion that hospitals play the guilt card when they contact patients with outstanding balances. "We saved your life, so could you please pay us in full before you touch your credit card bills or mortgage payments?" Not that the hospital would ever say that; it's just a feeling some of our respondents got.

The truth is that Illinois is fairly strict about what hospitals can and cannot do with billing and collections. The Fair Patient Billing Act requires, for example, that hospitals post notices about the availability of financial assistance not only in admission and registration areas, but also on websites. The law even dictates what those notices should say and how to determine how many languages it must be translated into.

The Fair Patient Billing Act is also the reason your hospital bill includes some key information about the services provided. A typical bill will offer a general description of the services, but the hospital must provide an itemized bill upon request. By the way, the financial assistance notice -- targeted particularly to uninsured patients -- must also appear on the bill.

If your bill is past due, the hospital cannot just ship it over to a collection agency. If you did not apply for financial assistance when you were admitted, there is still time. By law, the hospital must give patients 60 days (from the date of discharge or receipt of outpatient care) to apply for assistance. You also have the right to determine the accuracy of the bill.

We'll review the rest of the law in our next post.

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