Q&A: A health crisis brings high medical bills. Here are tips for dealing with the costs

Dear Liz: I have been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer which has metastasized into at least two areas. Surgery, chemo, perhaps a stay in rehab and possibly radiation therapy will be prescribed by my oncologist. In order not to deplete my retirement savings (the oncologist estimates that I will live longer — years — if the treatment goes well), what resources can be identified to help financially with co-pay, medical and prescription costs? I already know about hospital benevolence programs. I am going to revert to my monthly “austerity” budget, watching every penny of my expenditures and trying to avoid or reduce them. I will be unable to work part time, as I have been doing, for at least this year. I am 70. I have Medicare and a Medicare supplement plan as well as a Part D prescription plan. Thank you for any suggestions.

Answer: You’ve just received a shocking diagnosis and it’s understandable that you’re worried about the costs you’ll face.

Your Medicare supplement plan — also known as a Medigap plan — is designed to cover some or all of the costs not paid by traditional Medicare, including co-payments, co-insurance and deductibles. The plans with lower premiums typically have skimpier coverage. You’ll want to carefully review your plan to see what coverage you have.

You probably will have questions, so consider connecting with your State Health Insurance Assistance Program. This program can refer you to a government-funded counselor who can provide free Medicare counseling. You can find your regional SHIP using the online locator or by calling (877) 839-2675 and say “Medicare” when prompted.

Ask your oncologist about lower-cost treatment options and any charitable programs they have or are aware of. Benefits.gov can show you what government programs might be available to help with costs, while 211.org can help you check if there are any local programs. You may be able to seek out cheaper prescriptions through online pharmacies, GoodRxNeedyMeds, manufacturer discount programs or Medicare’s Extra Help program, which helps Medicare recipients with limited means to afford their medications.

Another option for people with catastrophic medical bills is to file for bankruptcy. Your retirement accounts would be protected, but you’d want to discuss your options with a bankruptcy attorney long before you file.

While you’re researching, keep in mind that the U.S. medical system is set up to push treatment, often regardless of the cost, efficacy or toll on quality of life. Physician and certified financial planner Carolyn McClanahan warns that people can find themselves on a “medical treadmill” that continues pushing painful, debilitating and costly treatments with little or no real benefit to the patient.

Consider having a frank talk with your oncologist about how much more time each treatment will likely get you — not just in a best-case scenario, but in an average-case scenario — and how you are likely to feel during the treatment. A second opinion may also be a good idea. These discussions can help you decide if you want to pour all your available resources into paying for treatment or if there are other options that would allow you to better enjoy whatever time remains.

McClanahan recommends picking up a copy of Katy Butler’s excellent book, “The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life.” Despite its title, the book doesn’t just focus on the very end of life, but also provides essential information about how to best navigate the healthcare system as an older person.