Published: Aug 03, 2012 9:58 AM EDT
Updated: Aug 03, 2012 6:39 PM EDT

NAPLES, Fla. - One of the most persistent questions our Call for Action team gets is about medical bills that come months or years after treatment. We just got one from a WINK viewer after a doctor's bill showed up in her mailbox two years after her last appointment! So, do you have to pay a bill that's been lost for years? We did some digging and discovered: yes, you do!

One way to avoid a surprise medical bill years down the line, is to pay attention to your mail, now.

"Number one, open the mail.... The next thing is to actually read it and try to understand it," offered Sheri Samotin, a medical billing advocate and president of LifeBridge Solutions.

Samotin said the piece of paper you get from your insurance that says, "this is not a bill," is actually really important.

"What you get is exactly the same thing the doctor's office gets, and that's called an 'Explanation of Benefits.' That's the paper that says right on the top, this is not a bill," she said.

The explanation of benefits will tell you how much you owe. That is, what's left of the doctor's bill after your insurance company pays. Your insurance company sends you and the doctor's office, a copy. If there's a balance owed, your doctor's office will usually send out a bill. But if it doesn't send out a bill, you're still on the hook.

"It's still your responsibility. There's a consequence," explained Samotin.

And years later, if a doctor's office finds you haven't paid a past due balance, expect them to come collecting.

"There really is no law that says, gee, you can't be billed if they discovered the you fell through the cracks or the bill wasn't paid or if they were sloppy on their side. If they find an open charge, unless you dispute saying, hey I wasn't there that day, that wasn't me-- that's different, but they can ask," said Samotin.

So how do you protect yourself from an unexpected bill? Like Sheri Samotin said, it's simple: open all your mail from your insurance company and check out how much you will owe. If there is a balance that will be due, pick up the phone and call the doctor's office. Find out if they want you to pay the next time you're in, or if they are going to send out a bill.