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Are you financially prepared for a sudden illness?

Are you caring for someone with a serious health condition? TODAY Financial editor Jean Chatzky explains how to manage the financial, medical and legal aspects of living with a long-term condition.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Are you caring for someone with a serious health condition? Is someone you love dealing with a recent negative diagnosis, or do you have one yourself? The fact that we all have longer life spans increases the chance that you'll answer at least one of those questions in the affirmative. And if you did, you know that life doesn't seem like it will ever be the same.

If you or a family member is diagnosed with a serious illness, you're living in a state of "new normal," says David Landay, founder of the informational Web site and author of "Be Prepared: The Complete Financial, Legal and Practical Guide for Living with Cancer, HIV and other Life-Challenging Conditions." Furthermore, your finances will have entered a state of "new normal" as well.

A diagnosis essentially means you need to learn how to manage the financial, medical and legal aspects of living with a long-term condition. It's a big ball of wax, for sure — one covered comprehensively on Landay's site — but here are some key points to get you started: Review your insurance options
If you have a full-time job with benefits, you likely have a small amount of disability coverage and hopefully a medical policy as well. "The first thing you want to do is analyze your policies, and understand the rules. There are all kinds of nuances that you need to familiarize yourself with," says Drew Tignanelli, a financial planner and Principal of Financial Consulate in Maryland. Make sure you're clear on which doctors, hospitals and procedures are covered by your health plan. In addition, you should know when and how your disability insurance will kick in if you need to be out of work. If you have questions, call your insurance company and get answers.

Educate yourself
The economics of medicine dictate — unfortunately — that our dollars buy us less face-to-face time with our doctors than they used to. That's why learning as much as you can about your condition and the language associated with it will pay off. "If you know about your condition, you can use the words your doctor is going to be using, and the conversation is going to be more precise and it's going to be faster," says Landay. That means you'll be able to extract more information out of your doctor in the time your appointment allows. But, just to be on the safe side, bring a list of topics you want to cover and questions you want to ask so you don't miss a thing. If the appointment ends before everything gets checked off, ask when you can follow up with your remaining questions by phone or e-mail.

Get access to cash
Having some liquidity is more important than ever. Take a close look at your assets, particularly your house. If you own your home

and have a lot of equity built up, apply for a home equity line of credit today. You may not ever need to use it, but it will be there just in case. Also look at any cash-value life insurance policies so that you know how much you can get out of them if needs be. Landay also suggests looking at the insurance policies offered by your credit card companies. Normally, I would not advise buying these, as they tend to be costly as well as duplicative of the life insurance you've already purchased. However, in a terminal situation, they are something of a sure bet, and Landay notes, "No health exam is required."Negotiate
Looking for a deal at the doctor's office is something that people tend to shy away from, and I understand that it can be awkward. But more and more, it's becoming the norm. As long as you approach it tactfully, it's perfectly fine, not to mention well worth your while.

"The statistics are showing that when people talk to doctors about medical bills, over 60 percent get the bills changed, and the same thing can happen with hospitals," explains Landay. Doctor's fees often vary by insurance coverage — or lack thereof — so they tend to be a bit flexible. At the very least, ask how much a service is going to cost upfront.

Along the same lines, you should go over your hospital, doctor and insurance bills with a fine-tooth comb, particularly if there are substantial services and charges involved. If we're talking about huge amounts of money — not uncommon with medical care — you may even want to consider a medical audit, which involves hiring a company to go over your bills and ensure you're not being overcharged. "It could cost $1,000 to $4,000 to have an audit like that, but if you're talking about a $100,000 medical bill, you could easily find $30,000 or $40,000 worth of expenses that were never rendered, overcharged or improperly coded," says Tignanelli. It sounds worth it to me. With reporting by Arielle McGowen.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .