Help is coming for many people struggling with medical debt on credit reports.
Starting Friday, the three major U.S. credit reporting companies will stop counting paid medical debt on their reports, which banks and others use to judge creditworthiness.
The companies also will start giving patients a year to resolve delinquent medical debt that has been sent to collections before reporting it. That’s up from six months.
Next year, the companies also will stop counting unpaid medical debt under $500.
Patient advocates cheer these moves, but they want more. They question whether medical debt should remain on credit reports at all.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put out the following information in April on how to protect yourself when it comes to medical billing and debt.
Check your bills for accuracy
When it comes to medical bills, you may find yourself caught between your medical providers and your insurance company in a confusing and unclear space. It can feel like full-time detective work to understand the costs for different procedures and what is and is not covered by insurance. The problem can be compounded if you received medical care from multiple providers.
Still, there are some things you can do to try to make sure that your bill is accurate, and if debt collectors contact you, that they’re not attempting to collect incorrect bills or violating your rights.
- Look at your medical bills closely to make sure the items on it are accurate and you received the treatments listed
- Make sure the bill is yours and shows your correct name, insurance information, and billing address
- Ask your provider for a plain language explanation for items on medical bills that are unclear to you
- Ask debt collectors to verify the debt and provide you with information about the collector and the bill that’s being collected
Protections under the No Surprises Act
For treatments you received starting January 1, 2022, you may have protections through the No Surprises Act. For example, you should not receive unexpected bills for emergency services received from a health care provider or facility that you didn’t know was out-of-network until you were billed.
If you don’t have health insurance or if you pay for care without using your health insurance, your provider must give you a “good faith” estimate of how much your care will cost, before you get care. Afterward, if the billed amount is $400 or more above the estimate, you may be able to dispute the charges through the patient-provider dispute resolution process .
Financial assistance options
If you’re not able to afford the bill, talk to the medical care provider. Nonprofit hospitals are required by law to offer financial assistance programs, and many other providers are willing to work out payment arrangements. Contact your state or local social services to see if more help is available.
Know the limits on debt collectors contacting you
Debt collectors can contact you only about valid debts that you owe. They can’t contact you about debt that isn’t yours or that you don’t owe. You have the right to ask a debt collector to verify that you owe the debt and that it is yours.
If the medical bill is yours, it is accurate, and you owe the money, then debt collectors can contact you to try to collect it. They may sue you to recover the money—and if they win the lawsuit, they could garnish your wages or place a lien on your home. However, they must comply with the laws that apply to debt collection, like avoiding harassing or abusive calls, and following requirements when they report the debt to consumer reporting companies. They can’t call you around the clock, and you have the right to tell them to stop contacting you.
If you are concerned that a debt collector’s practices violate your rights, you can take action to enforce your rights.
See more about your debt collection rights and protections
Push back against coercive credit reporting
Debt collectors are not permitted to report a medical bill to the credit reporting companies without trying to collect the debt from you first. Debt collectors may be hoping that you will simply pay the bill without disputing it. Instead, you have the right to dispute the information.
See how to dispute an error on your credit report
Don’t pay a person or a service who promises to keep medical bills off your credit report or to protect you from unexpected out-of-network medical costs. Steer clear of people who want to charge you an upfront fee for resolving your debt and credit situation. Reputable credit counselors are clear about their services and fees and avoid pressuring you.
Submit a complaint
If you have a question about the No Surprises Act or believe the law isn’t being followed, you can contact the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services No Surprises Help Desk at (800) 985-3059 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET, seven days a week, to submit a question or a complaint. You can also submit a complaint online to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services .
For issues with a consumer financial product or service, including medical debt collections and credit reporting, you can submit a complaint to the CFPB.
What we are doing about medical debt
We have made the issues surrounding medical billing and collections a focus of our work, dating back to our research report in 2014 . Our research and the report showed that medical bills on credit reports are less predictive of future repayment of credit than traditional credit obligations. Medical bills placed on credit reports can result in reduced access to credit, increased risk of bankruptcy, avoidance of medical care, and difficulty securing employment, even when the bill itself is inaccurate or mistaken.
Addressing concerns about medical billing and collections is a particular focus of ours as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January, we released a bulletin reminding debt collectors and credit reporting companies of their legal obligations under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Fair Credit Reporting Act for bills that are subject to the No Surprises Act, which protects consumers from certain unexpected medical bills.
In March, we published a report on medical debt in the United States that found consumer credit records contain a total of $88 billion in reported medical bills (as of June 2021). Medical bills are the most common collections item on people’s credit reports and show up on 43 million credit reports. About one in five households reports that they have unpaid medical bills. What’s more, medical billing, collections, and credit reporting are complex, confusing, and commonly have errors. Patients and their families often struggle to correct these errors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.