Question: I had a mole on my face and thankfully, it turned out not to be cancer. But now I owe $1,200 for the procedure and I can’t afford it. My boyfriend says just to ignore the bill and it’ll go away, but that doesn’t sound right.
Won’t that hurt my credit score? Won’t the doctor want his money?
— Kelly in Arizona
Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…
An emphatic yes to both questions. After that, it gets murky.
Medical debt combines two confusing and depressing topics: The healthcare system and the debt-collection industry. That’s why it’s so hard to get straight answers to simple questions. For instance, your medical debt will eventually drag down your credit score. When exactly? Hard to say.
That’s because many doctors and hospitals don’t report debts to the three big credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion). Instead, they simply send the unpaid balances to a collection agency – which not only calls you repeatedly, but will report you to the credit bureaus.
Just one of those reports can ding your credit score by 50 points. That’s a lot when you consider the highest score is only 850.
So what can you do? Negotiate. Collection agencies aren’t known for their flexibility, so you want to negotiate with the doctor’s office or hospital before your debt gets to the collection agency. I’ve heard stories of former patients getting a third or even half of the debt waived.
To do that requires many uncomfortable conversations, however.
You’ll need to prove you can’t afford to pay the entire bill, which means disclosing your family income. It also means paying something, anything right now. You’re more likely to get a break if you offer to make frequent installment payments.
Of course, there are no rules here, so it’s up to the doctor or hospital. Some are very nice about these things. Others send your bill to collections immediately.
So the only crystal-clear advice is this: Be proactive. Call about that debt now.
Have a debt question?
Email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and Howard Dvorkin will review it. Dvorkin is a CPA, chairman of Debt.com, and author of two personal finance books, Credit Hell: How to Dig Yourself Out of Debt and Power Up: Taking Charge of Your Financial Destiny.