Are medical bills giving you a headache? Blowing them off will only cause more financial pain.

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Are past due notices from the hospital or doctor’s office piling up on your dining room table? It may be tempting to swipe the whole stack into the nearest trash can, but out-of-sight, out-of-mind isn’t a good strategy when it comes to medical bills – or any debt – that you can’t afford to pay.

If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only one afraid to open the mailbox because you might find another hefty medical bill or the dreaded “final notice” glaring back.

Around 61% of people with medical debt said they experience increased stress and worry, 49% admitted losing sleep over medical bills, and 23% weren’t confident they could pay off their medical debt, according to a recent report on working Americans from Salary Finance.

Before you give up on paying a medical bill you think you can’t afford, click or swipe to learn what can happen when you pay late or default on medical debt.

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1. The bill could go to collections

If the hospital billing department is threatening to send your account to collections, pay attention. A collections account will appear on your credit report, negatively affecting your credit score.

To avoid having your account sent to collections, work with the hospital or doctor’s office billing department to come up with a payment plan you can afford and then stick to it.

Find out: How to Understand Charges on Hospital and Doctor Bills

2. You’ll have even more stress in your life

Relentless notices about past-due medical bills are bad enough, but having a collection agency on your back is even worse. Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, agencies must obey certain restrictions on aggressive collection tactics. They’re not legally allowed to call you in the middle of the night, make an excessive number of phone calls in one day, or curse at you, for example.

Even so, some collection agencies still skirt the rules to collect a debt, hoping they’ll get away with it. When that happens, you’ll have to write letters asking them to stop illegal behaviors and maybe even hire an attorney to warn the agency to back off its illegal collection tactics.

Try to avoid this additional stress by offering the hospital or doctor’s office a lower lump sum payment to settle the debt or suggest a reasonable monthly payment arrangement to keep your account out of collections.

Find out: How to Deal With Medical Debt in Collections

3. Late payments can lower your credit score

Even if the hospital or health care provider doesn’t send your account to collections, it might still report your late payments to major credit bureaus Experian, TransUnion or Equifax.

When that happens, the late payment information will appear on your credit report under payment history, which accounts for about 35% of your credit score. That mark will likely have a negative effect, lowering your credit score.

Are you paying late or missing payments on more than one account? Multiple late payment accounts on your credit report have an even greater impact on your credit score.

Find out: 8 Strategies for Negotiating With the Hospital Billing Department

4. You may still be able to buy some time

All three major credit reporting agencies must wait 180 days after receiving information about unpaid medical bills before putting the past-due debt on your credit report. If possible, use this six-month grace period to resolve the debt so it doesn’t show up on your credit report to lower your credit score.

5. You could come up with a solution to your medical debt

Do your best to work out a payment plan, settlement, or other arrangement with the hospital or health care provider as soon as you know you’re having trouble making payments so the debt won’t go to collections and appear on your credit report later.

Depending on your circumstances, ability to manage credit responsibly, and credit score, paying the medical bill with a new credit card that has an introductory  0% APR  for a year or longer could also be an option.

Just make sure you factor those monthly payments into your budget, don’t add to the credit card debt with new purchases and pay the balance off before the promotional period ends to avoid paying interest.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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