There comes a point when reviewing important documents is more painful than useful. You may have a file cabinet or accordion folder gathering dust, full of old tax records, receipts, and medical records.
It’s hard to know when to get rid of stuff, and it feels easier to just throw it in the file cabinet. That way, you always have backup documents if you need them for any reason.
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As life changes, sensitive documents about medical conditions or records could pile up, leaving you with file folders bursting with paper. However, privacy laws and easy access make it hard to know when to throw medical documents away. If you’re confused, that’s understandable, but if you’re desperate to ditch some clutter, we’ve got you covered.
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Holding On to Medical Records at Home
Most doctors keep patient records for about seven years. That is due to national standards, but laws often change by state. If you are covered by Medicare, your doctor might keep records for ten years.
There are strict privacy laws regarding patient records. You, or your representative, are the only people who have the right to access them. In order to do so, you have to request them.
How are you able to review them? Some hospitals let you look at them online. Others make you appear in person to request them. Some let you do it over the phone, or by filing a written request.
You should hold on to these records for at least one year. Experts recommend this for claims and disputes. That way, you have proof on hand if disputes do arise.
How can you stay organized? Keeping a physical file cabinet is a traditional idea. You can start by creating hanging, alphabetized folders. This will make rifling through your cabinet much easier.
Finding things will take less time as well. Color-coding and labeling is also a great idea. You could use orange folders for prescriptions, red for medical histories, and so forth.
- Prescription information: Your prescription history follows you for life. If you’ve discovered specific allergies through prescriptions, it will be documented. Keeping this information is crucial, as it may help with insurance claims and so you don’t have to rely on your memory for multi-syllable medication names. It also is helpful if you take medications in the long term. If you take prescriptions to help control your blood pressure, for instance, keep those documents. It will help doctors refill your prescriptions, document dosages, and more.
- Specific medical histories: Your medical history is incredibly detailed. From tiny incidents to major illnesses, it’s a comprehensive record. However, there’s no real reason to keep it and some doctors may not allow you to have a copy. But specific medical histories are important. If you dealt with cancer or suffered cardiac arrest, for instance, keep all the documents pertaining to those situations.
- Health insurance information: These are important documents to retain at home. It will make the process of insurance claims, copays, and reimbursements much easier. Keeping your insurance cards is important, of course. But you should also keep documents that detail your coverage too. If there are issues, you now have physical proof to back it up.
- Contact information: You may switch physicians many times over the course of your life. If you move often, your primary care provider will change. If you switch jobs, your primary doctor might change, too. This can happen even if your providers are within the insurance network. In general, you should keep a file of all your doctors’ contact information. If you only saw them for a common cold and a broken arm, it might not be strictly necessary. But it’s still a good idea! That way, you can contact them in the future. If you’re having trouble providing a new doctor with the right information, contact the old one.
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Keeping Track of Medical Bills and Receipts at Home
Decoding medical bills is confusing. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who is charging you what. There isn’t a national or state standard for how a medical bill should look.
While you should try to avoid keeping duplicates at all costs, there are a few factors you should take into account. Did specialists treat you? How long did you stay in the hospital? What doctors attended to you?
Here are some things to consider when keeping track of bills at home.
- Some costs, like the nurses and technicians, are included in the daily room rate. This might be applicable if you stayed in the hospital for a few weeks. Some attending doctors aren’t included in that rate, though. They will bill you separately because they aren’t employed by the hospital.
- Keep all these individual bills for one year. If you receive duplicates—such as charges that are mentioned twice on different statements—toss those.
- You might want to invest in a shredder. One of the main reasons that people save bills is out of concern, and don’t want to be caught without the documents they need. But experts recommend trashing them anyway. If someone breaks into your home, they can access information to commit identity fraud. In addition, if you don’t dispose of them properly, you’re putting yourself at a similar risk.
If you’re still struggling to stay organized, here are some tips. Set up a time and date to review your files. It doesn’t have to be every week. Setting a quarterly date might be enough to keep you from accumulating papers that you don’t need.
Facing an overflowing file cabinet often feels defeating before you start. If that’s the case, review it often. Clearly labeling files is a simple trick, too. It feels obvious, but review your file titles. How vague are they? Did you assume you’d know what you meant later on? That rarely happens!
If you already have a full file cabinet, you may not know what documents to keep. Here are some tips.
- Medical records: We already discussed keeping your medical history for personal reasons. You can also keep it for tax reasons, too. It may prove to be a valuable deduction. As tax laws change, you will need to keep on top of this information. Currently, you can only deduct unreimbursed expenses that equal more than ten percent of your adjusted gross income. If that’s the case, keep these records for three years.
- Medical bills: You’ll likely receive physical copies of these bills in the mail. They might also appear on your online insurance account. Keep the physical copies, and make duplicates if you need them. File these away for one year. You can keep them for a little longer if it gives you peace of mind. Experts recommend one year. There is a reason why you might keep them for longer. For instance, what if you discovered stage II ovarian cancer and required immediate surgery? If you didn’t have insurance, that bill would be a major expense. It might last for decades of your life and if that’s true for you, keep the bill until your expenses are all paid off.
- Insurance claims: Do you have physical evidence of pending or past insurance claims? Make sure to keep it. This is especially crucial if you have major hospital bills that insurance may or may not cover.
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Saving Your Important Documents
Saving, organizing, and disposing of documents... it all feels daunting. It might even feel big enough to put on your list of New Year's resolutions.
Knowing what you have will give you peace of mind, though. It can also inform your future actions. If you need to request medical records or contact your insurance, you have clear actions in mind.
If you don’t need to do it now, keep it in mind for the future. Organizing documents and bills should be on every end-of-life planning checklist.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Your Medical Records.” 16 June 2017, www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-individuals/medical-records/index.html
- Office of the Maryland Attorney General. “Sorting Out Medical Bills After A Trip to the Hospital.” n.d., www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/CPD/Tips-Publications/tip41.aspx
- Schifferle, Lisa. “A pack rat’s guide to shredding.” Federal Trade Commission: Consumer Information, 1 May 2015, www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2015/05/pack-rats-guide-shredding
- Washington State: Office of the Attorney General. “What to Shred.” n.d., www.atg.wa.gov/what-shred