‘Be polite and negotiate everything’: the TikTok feminist saving people from medical debt

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During the Covid-19 pandemic, the greatest crisis of our generation, healthcare has been top of mind for many Americans.

For the one in six Americans drowning in medical bills, reform can’t come soon enough. From riding in an ambulance to delivering a baby, families are regularly hit with thousands of dollars in medical expenses, even when they have health insurance.

In the new Biden administration, progressive politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders hope to finally push through a nationalized, universal, single-payer healthcare bill into law. But until some version of universal healthcare is closer to a reality, hundreds of thousands of people are turning to an unlikely place for answers: TikTok.

Tori Dunlap is a 26-year-old self-proclaimed personal finance expert and the founder of HerFirst100k, a brand she says is dedicated to delivering a financial education to women in order to fight the patriarchy. Last year, her TikTok video explaining how to negotiate medical bills went viral, surpassing 1m likes.

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In her video entitled “Universal healthcare please!”, Dunlap explains that her medical bill, which she believed should have been covered by insurance, was not because it was not “coded” correctly as a preventive visit. This clerical error meant that Dunlap owed $268 for a routine gynecology appointment. She records herself negotiating the bill with the medical office.

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Dunlap, originally from Tacoma, Washington, works on building her brand full-time in Seattle. Stories and questions from young people about Dunlap’s tips flooded the comments section of her video. She credits her parents – her father is a salesperson, her mother a homemaker – for her financial education

“My parents taught me about saving money, the potential dangers of credit cards, and how to invest,” Dunlap said. “I negotiate everything. My dad is the master negotiator. I watched my dad growing up negotiate our cable bill, negotiate our car insurance, negotiate our phone bill.”

Her videos come from personal experience. When Dunlap quit her corporate job to run her own business, her insurance changed, which meant some of her visits to the doctor would not be covered by her insurance company. When she was charged hundreds of dollars, she tried to find another way.

“I asked ‘Can you provide a one-time exception?’” Dunlap said. “They gave it to me after me incessantly calling.”

To save time explaining what to say to medical billing departments, Dunlap keeps a free script on her website about how to negotiate common recurring bills.

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“What you saw me do on that TikTok is a variation of that script. Be polite. Be cordial. Treat them with respect because they’re people and they deserve it and we’re more likely to get what we want if we’re kind.”

Dunlap said the gynecologist appointment wasn’t the first time she received an outrageous medical bill. “It actually happened two other times,” Dunlap said. “I got charged $700 for a procedure I hadn’t even had yet. I hadn’t even scheduled it.”

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Thousands of people may have watched her TikToks, but even those in her own circle benefit. Dunlap’s friend, Kristine Ota, 34, had a $180 medical bill from one doctor’s visit. After watching her friend’s TikTok video, she decided to try negotiating what she owed after visiting a liver specialist that wasn’t covered by her insurance plan.

Ota got on the phone with the billings department at the doctor’s office and asked for a discount for paying that same day. They gave her 20% off. “I always took [medical bills] at face value,” Ota said. “Luckily, I had the money to be able to pay for it. I think it emboldened me to try it again.”

When hospital or doctor’s office bills are left unpaid, collection agencies can purchase the debt in bulk for pennies on the dollar. Shaunna Burns, a former debt collector and Tik Tok creator, also uses her channel to share strategies for dealing with medical debt once it goes into collection. Some strategies include reporting collection agencies if they call outside of business hours, asking for an itemized receipt, and requesting “proof of claim” for the alleged debt.

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In one of her TikTok videos, Burns explains that a debt held by a collection agency can expire after a certain amount of time and said sometimes she just “lets the clock run out”. But those statutes of limitations vary by state.

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Christine Kingston, a California-based attorney specializing in debt, agrees with Burns’s strategy. “It’s called debt validation. Everyone has a right to ask for evidence of the right to collect a debt before they pay it. It’s under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.”

For Burns and Dunlap, making these TikTok videos is about cutting through the complicated fine print and telling people in a 15-60 second format how to gain back control of their medical debt, and financial power.

Dunlap herself saved her first $100,000 back in 2019, just a few years after graduating from the University of Portland. Soon after, she appeared on Good Morning America and quit her desk job to become a full-time money educator. She recalled being the go-to financial adviser for many of her female friends in college.

“I graduated college in 2016. I came into adulthood and womanhood in Trump’s America. I realized just how unequal and inequitable our society is. And a lot of it has to do with money,” Dunlap said. “A financial education is our best form of protest as women. If we can start getting more money into more women’s hands, we can absolutely change the world.”