'Real Money': Hidden Money at Your Hospital

VIDEO: ABC News Paula Faris finds better ways to save cash on medical care.

ABC News' Paula Faris reports:

Joyce Ann Huston of Las Vegas has been a musician her entire life and is one of the 26 percent of Americans who say that they or a family member have struggled to pay medical bills in the last year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Want to learn how to slash those medical bills?

Join Michelle Katz in a live Twitter chat at 7 p.m. ET today. Check it out here: @michellekatzmsn #RealMoney or www.facebook.com/michellekatzmsn

Huston, known as "Lady J," was on stage Wednesday night and today, she's paying for it.

Like millions of Americans, Huston has a chronic medical condition: She suffers from lupus.

She preps her body for days before performing, citing music as not just her only escape, but the only way she pays her bills.

Huston still owes $25,000 from her original diagnosis, and new bills from her ongoing care are mounting. With medical bills continuously contributing to her debt, she worries she could lose everything. Among those Americans who file for personal bankruptcy, 62 percent do so because of medical bills, according to one study in the American Journal of Medicine.

"I could end up losing my house," Huston told ABC News.

ABC News' Paula Faris talks to Joyce Ann Huston of Las Vegas about saving money on her medical bills.

But what Huston and many others don't realize is that more than half of the nation's hospitals - the nonprofits - are required to give back to the community, often through what is called "Patient Assistance Programs."

"No, I wasn't aware of that, at all," Huston told ABC News.

Non-profit hospitals are required to publicize their policies on assistance programs. The American Hospital Association told ABC News, "Hospitals should widely publicize on the premises, on the website, and distribute directly to patients their policies on assistance programs."

But in one study by Community Catalyst of 100 hospitals, nearly half didn't mention it on their website and almost 70 percent didn't tell patients how to qualify when they called.

With the help of a patient advocate at the Colors of Lupus Foundation in Nevada, Katz and Huston went after some of that money. Sure enough, Huston's hospital had a fund.

It took several weeks of phone calls to cut through all the red tape.

"You have to understand if they announce it, everyone would be flooding, right?" said Hui-Lim Ang, founder of the Colors of Lupus Foundation in Nevada.

"It's just a matter of negotiation," Ang added, "just knowing it's out there and not being afraid to ask for it."

In the end, Huston qualified for assistance. Her $25,000 bill was reduced to just $7,000, which she will pay in monthly, interest-free payments of $100.

"I'm just shocked you all were able to do that," Huston said. "I didn't know how I was going to make it through. I didn't know things like this were possible. I'm so touched, so deeply touched."

And today, after saving $18,000 on her medical bills, Huston is singing a much different tune.

Tips that could save you money:

1. Ask for a written financial assistance policy. Hospitals should have a written financial assistance policy available that includes eligibility criteria, the basis for calculating charges and the method for applying for financial assistance.

2. If you can, let your hospital know ahead of time. Hospitals use a process to identify who may or may not be able to pay in advance of billing, in order to determine whether a patient's care needs could be funded by an alternative source, such as a charity care fund. This is also done during the billing and collection process, but it is best to address any billing issues in a timely manner. Since 2000, hospitals of all types have provided more than $367 billion in uncompensated care to their patients, according to the AHA.

3. Keep communicating and be calm. People make mistakes, so it's important to stay in touch with your care providers, hospital representatives and insurance providers. Be sure you document everything. Be prepared for representatives who may disagree with something you said. But if you have documentation to back up your claim, remain calm and use it.

For more, check out Michelle Katz' tips on her blog

If this story helped you, let us know on Twitter: #MyWorldNewsStory

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