RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Questions about paying a sizeable hospital bill prompted a CBS 17 viewer to turn to Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia for answers.

Sbraccia found that paying for the bill is just one part of the equation — knowing how much you’ll pay in advance is the rest of the equation.

“Hospital bills are beyond people’s ability to pay them,” says North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. “It’s a terrible situation because people need health care.”

A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association looking at medical costs from 2009 to 2020 found medical bills are the largest source of American debt.

JAMA says a record $140 billion in collections was owed last year by those with medical debt.

A viewer who experienced a payment problem after emergency treatment at WakeMed told CBS 17 in an email that insurance only paid $2,900 of her $5,000 medical bill.

When she asked WakeMed for a payment plan, she said the hospital told her “to enroll with Commerce Bank to obtain a loan.”

She said she didn’t understand why the hospital would refer customers to a bank.

In response, the hospital told Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia, “It’s not a loan per se, because it’s interest-free and not reported to credit bureaus.”

WakeMed says the special loans “are the same as a payment plan” with them.

The hospital also says it posts its prices for nearly 300 services on its website.

Under federal law initiated by the Trump administration, all hospitals nationwide are supposed to post their prices.

Attorney General Stein said he’s checking to see if that’s really happening statewide.

“We’ve surveyed every hospital in North Carolina to see if they’re actually carrying out this federal rule that you have to put up prices on the internet where you can see them,” said Stein.

His office is now collating those results to see which hospitals are complying, and if not, where they are lacking.

It also turns out posting prices can be very confusing.

“For the same procedure in the same hospital, there can be multiple different prices for that procedure regarding whose paying for it,” said Stein.

He said prices vary for “Insurer ‘A,’ insurer ‘B,’ Medicare, Medicaid, even the uninsured.”

Experts say when you get a bill from a hospital, don’t pay it right away.

Instead, they say you need to ask for an itemized bill and then check each item.

They say you should then work with the hospital to negotiate the prices for those items.

Stein says he’d like to see hospital price postings standardized so people can compare prices hospital-to-hospital but says that requires the General Assembly to change the law.

He told CBS 17 he thinks the legislature should look into it.