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There’s a difference between your healthcare costs and debt you incur because of healthcare. A bill is charged directly to you and has a specific due date. The due date can be extended, but after a certain amount of time, this bill will be sent to a debt collection agency.

It’s once this bill gets to collections that it becomes medical debt that can affect your credit.

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Keeping medical bills from getting on your credit report

The key is to catch the bill before it becomes a debt. Here are a few ways to keep it from getting that far:

Review your bills

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to miss something when you’re looking through your medical expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the procedures you’ve been charged for and make sure every line item is correct.

Dispute errors

If you do find an error on a bill, don’t keep it to yourself. Call your provider’s office and alert them to the incorrect items. They will either explain why it’s correct or be able to fix it for you.

Talk to the bill issuer to work out a plan

Your doctor or hospital may be able to set up a payment plan that allows you to make small payments each month instead of paying everything at once. If you think this would be feasible for your budget, ask about working out a plan.

Negotiate

Your medical bills aren’t necessarily set in stone. Some offices are willing to negotiate the price as long as they get paid in the end.

“Negotiating medical bills is like negotiating any other debt,” says Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert and contributor on Debt.com. “You might even consider negotiating before it goes to collections if you can come up with a lump sum to pay it off.”

Where do unpaid medical bills go?

If you ignore a medical bill past the due date and past any extended due dates, the bill will be sent to a debt collections agency within 90 to 180 days. The collections account won’t appear on your credit report until after a 180-day waiting period that allows insurance payments time to apply.

do medical bills affect your credit; stethoscope on top of paper medical bill

Why does the account take so long to show up on your credit report? Shady practices in the medical billing and debt industry led to the creation of the National Consumer Assistance Plan. The three major credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) created the plan together in an effort to make credit reports more accurate.

Since medical bills were often moved to collections very quickly without the knowledge of the debtor, they decided it was best to add a 180-day grace period for any medical account that may end up on a credit report.

Any unpaid medical debt in collections will affect your credit report if it is not paid within 180 days and it may hurt your credit score. For this reason, it’s best to pay off any medical bills in collections as soon as possible.

Can’t pay it all off at once? Consider a number of medical debt relief methods, such as consolidation, settlement, and bankruptcy.

How long can medical collections stay on my credit report?

An unpaid collections account can stay on your credit report for seven years. However, if a medical collections account is paid by your insurance company, it is removed from your credit report immediately.

Take care of your medical debt before your credit score gets majorly hurt. Contact us today.

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How medical debt affects credit scores

FICO 8

This is the most commonly used score among creditors and lenders to determine your creditworthiness. In this scoring model, medical collections accounts are treated the same as other collections accounts. It ignores small accounts with values less than $100.

FICO 9

This scoring model weighs medical debt differently from FICO 8. Paid collections accounts are ignored and medical collections accounts don’t affect the score as much as other collection account types.

VantageScore 3.0

This score is commonly used for credit monitoring apps like Mint and Credit Karma. VantageScore 3.0 ignores collection accounts altogether. This sounds great, but be wary – if you monitor this credit score only, your FICO 8 score could be vastly different.

VantageScore 4.0

This version of VantageScore only counts medical collections accounts that are six months or older. Like FICO 9, medical collections accounts don’t affect VantageScore 4.0 as much as other types of collection accounts.

Most of the credit scores that are used by lenders are going to treat a collection account as negative, whether it's a medical account or not. Click To Tweet

How to remove medical debt collections from credit reports

Ask for proof

When a debt collector contacts you about an outstanding debt, you have the right to ask them for proof. Don’t blindly trust them when they tell you that you have medical debt. By law, they must verify the debt. They have to send you the amount of the debt, the name of the creditor, and the terms and conditions that apply.

File a dispute (if it’s inaccurate)

If you ask for verification and the collector has incorrect or incomplete information, you can dispute it with the credit bureaus to get it off your credit report.

Find out how old the debt is

You may not have too long until your seven years are up and the medical debt gets removed from your credit file anyway. Checking the age of your debt also tells you whether you are within the statute of limitations and can still be sued.

Pay it off

The easiest way to remove medical debt collections from your credit reports will always be to just pay it off. It may be tough now, but it will be good for your credit later.

Note on pay for delete

Some consumers who pursue medical debt relief through debt settlement may want to try the “pay for delete” method to remove it from their credit report. This could be unnecessary due to the 2015 National Consumer Assistance Plan, which states that medical collection accounts paid by an insurer will be immediately removed from credit reports.

A medical bill question for one of our financial experts…

Question: I was recently informed by a debt collection agency that my bill from a clinic was forwarded on to them by the clinic. It is for $4,300, which I can’t afford to pay right now. Will my credit standing suffer if I set up a payment plan with the debt collector? Is it better to put it on a credit card? I have been thinking of consolidating all of my credit card debt and medical debt too if possible – who is reputable? Thanks for your help. Steph L.

Gerri Detweiler, Credit Expert, responds…

Hi Steph,

It sounds like there are several issues you are grappling with:

  1. You have found out a medical bill you owe has gone to collections and you can’t afford to pay it.
  2. You are concerned about maintaining your credit rating.
  3. You have additional debt you are struggling to repay.

Let’s take a look at each of these issues so you can try to make an informed decision about your next steps.

Medical debt in collections

Medical debts in collections are responsible for over half of all collection accounts on credit reports, so you’re certainly not alone in your concerns about how to pay this debt. Prior to your medical bill being turned over to collections did you make any attempts to work something out with the clinic, such as requesting a reduction in the balance and/or a payment plan? If not, you may want to at least make an attempt to do that first.

Contact the original provider and ask if they can pull it back from collections so you can resolve the bill with them directly. The advantage of this approach is that there will no longer be a risk that it will be listed on your credit reports as a collection account, which is considered quite negative. You may also be able to work out an interest-free payment plan directly with the provider.

Using a credit card for medical bills

If you can’t work out a payment plan with the original service provider, then you may want to charge the full amount to a credit card. This would help you avoid potentially damaging your credit with the collection account.

New rules in credit reporting give you more time to deal with medical debt so it doesn’t negatively affect your score. But credit damage is still possible. If you don’t take care of the collection account within 180 days, then the collection agency may report it to the credit bureaus. Then it could negatively affect your score.

If you decide to go this route, work directly with the original service provider, if possible. However, only consider using a credit card to pay the bill if you are confident you can pay back the credit card debt in a reasonable period of time. Otherwise, you’ll take an already unaffordable debt and make it more expensive through additional interest charges.

This strategy is a bit of a long shot since the debt has already been turned over to a collection agency, but it’s worth a try.

Free help to evaluate your options is available here. Find the best way to get out of debt for your needs, budget, and goals.

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Options for relief if you have to go through the collection agency

If that doesn’t work, you’ll have no choice but to communicate directly with the collection agency. You will have several options at that point:

Option No. 1: Pay off the collection account with a credit card

First, offer to pay off the bill in full right away using a credit card. This may make sense if you get written assurance from the collection agency that it has not reported the debt to the credit reporting agencies, and will not report it if you pay it off right away. If you pay the debt over time, you’ll pay interest, so you need to take that additional cost into account.

Option No. 2: Set up a payment arrangement with the collection agency

Setting up a payment plan won’t necessarily prevent the collection account from appearing your credit reports, but it might. A few major collection agencies will not report collection accounts if the borrower enters into a repayment plan soon after being contacted about the debt and subsequently pays on time.

If you attempt to go this route, make sure the collector clearly states its credit reporting policy in writing. It should also provide you with a written description of any fees or interest that will be added to the debt. Compare what they will charge to the cost of paying with a credit card.

Option No. 3: Settle the debt with the collection agency.

You may be able to negotiate a reduced payoff amount for the debt. There’s a good chance the collection agency has either purchased the debt for less than the full amount or is collecting on behalf of the medical provider. Either case would give them some flexibility to accept a lesser amount. This will likely result in a collection account on your credit, but once you’ve resolved it you should be able to at least get the balance updated to show it’s been paid.

If you’re thinking of consolidating, start with a phone call…

You indicated that you are thinking of debt consolidation because you have other debts. If that’s the case, your first call – even before you contact the medical provider or collection agency – should be to a reputable credit counseling agency. The counselor can help you review your debts and budget, so you can evaluate how this debt fits into your overall financial situation.

If you discover, for example, that you can’t pay back your debt with the help of the counseling agency in five years or less, you may need to consider debt settlement or even bankruptcy. While those options may hurt your credit in the short term, they could allow you to put your debts behind you, so you are then free to start rebuilding your credit and reaching your financial goals. If you’re still not sure which option is right for you, call and Debt.com will match you with the right solution, based on your needs, credit, and budget.

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Other questions about unpaid medical bills

Q:Can collectors garnish my wages over unpaid medical bills?

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A: Your wages can be garnished because of medical bills only if the collector sues, receives a judgment, then gets a court order. Many collectors don’t think this is worth the trouble, given that filing a civil suit will cost them money. However, it depends on the collector. Some other collectors file suits in the hopes you will ignore the court summons, which allows them to get a deficiency judgment against you.

Q:How do unpaid medical bills affect my visitor visa?

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A: If you accrue medical debt while on a visitor visa, your sponsor could be held liable for what you owe.

Q:Do all unpaid medical bills go to collections?

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A: Unless your medical office chooses to deal with your unpaid bills themselves, they will likely go to collections within 90 to 180 days after your missed payment.

Q:Can I be sued for unpaid medical bills?

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A: Debt collectors can sue for unpaid medical bills. Although it isn’t very common, it’s still best to pay off medical debt as soon as you can to prevent this from happening.

Q:Who pays unpaid medical bills after death?

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A: This depends on a few different factors. First, was the deceased covered by Medicaid?

If they were, the state can recover the payments they made from when the deceased was 55 years old until the time of their death. If they didn’t have Medicaid, the estate is responsible for paying any outstanding medical bills. Certain states require adult children to cover what the estate can’t. The bottom line with this question is you must check your state laws to be sure.

Q:Can unpaid medical bills be claimed on taxes?

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A: No, medical expenses can only be claimed if you paid them. Outstanding bills don’t count.

Q:Can unpaid medical bills put a lien on your house?

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A: In some cases, medical debt can result in a property lien. Ignoring the debt can lead to you being sued, which can lead to a lien being placed on your property for the amount you owe.

If medical debt is weighing you down, we can help lift the burden. Call today for a free consultation.

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Article last modified on July 16, 2020. Published by Debt.com, LLC

contributors

Gerri Detweiler

Expert contributor