HOUSTON -

For many people these days going to the hospital is like  entering a cage fight, full of tension and drama and surprises, where patients often feel powerless against the massive hospital system and its huge costs.

In fact, struggling to pay high medical bills is the number one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country.

Tatyana Prichetnikova is a 34-year-old single mother from Houston who went to the hospital because she was writhing in pain from a kidney stone.

"I was driving at the time of the attack.  I start crying and screaming because the pain was so bad," remembered Prichetnikova.

At the hospital, Prichetnikova was given an IV, a MRI, a urine test and four ibuprofen pills for the pain.

"I did not get to ask doctor question, they didn't give me advice. Nothing, nothing was taken care, besides they easing my pain," Prichetnikova said.

After a short three-hour hospital stay, Prichetnikova got a bill for $10,153.00. She could not believe the cost.

"I'm saying I can't pay this bill right now, as I hang up I start crying and my heart was beating like crazy and I think now I'm having heart attack too," recalled Tatyana as she looked at her invoice from the hospital.

Enter Shawn Fry, a former hospital administrator, who now runs Prevalent Healthcare Information Technology, which is a company that specializes in helping hospitals improve billing, identify billing mistakes and ultimately help hospitals collect more revenue.

Fry said the average American hospital patient could save thousands and thousands of dollars on their hospital bills, just by following a few simple steps.

"I would say almost all Americans are paying too much for hospital costs," said Fry.

Here are the steps to cutting your hospital bills:

Step 1:

Shop the exact price for the hospital procedure you want at different hospitals in  your area.

There are several new websites where you can do just that.

Sites like HealthCareBlueBook.com, SnapHealth.com and ClearHealthCareCost.com.

Step 2:

Armed with that pricing information, now try to negotiate a lower price with the hospital of your choice for the procedure you want, up front.

Insurance companies do it everyday, so should you.

"Consumers can reduce their cost 20 to 50 percent, simply by the willingness to negotiate and pay up front," said Fry.

Step 3:

After you have your procedure or service at the hospital, ask for an itemized bill and check it for mistakes in billing.

Things like being charged for drugs and services you never received.

Being charged two, three, or four times for the same thing.

And the most expensive mistake of all: Being charged for extra days at the hospital that you never used.

"If you were discharged on Wednesday in the morning, you are not responsible for paying that days charge -- if you were discharged early enough," said Fry.

Step 4:

Just as college students apply for financial aid, you should apply for financial aid at the hospital. Many people can qualify and they don't even know it.

Step 5:

If all else fails, ask for a discount off your total bill anyway.