Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.
If you’re struggling with unpaid medical bills, you’re not alone.
Americans are estimated to owe as much as $140 billion in unpaid medical debt, according to a 2021 study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
Mounting medical bills can wreck your financial life. They can damage your credit score, make it difficult to pay other bills and demolish your emergency savings fund.
But the rising cost of health care and a lack of adequate insurance makes it difficult for many people to escape medical bills.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take both before and after seeking health care to help lower or even eliminate your medical debt.
So What Happens When You Don’t Pay Medical Bills?
You might not want to deal with that bill — but avoiding your medical debts can have serious financial consequences.
Specifically, this is what can happen if you don’t pay medical bills:
- Additional reminders and phone calls from the hospital or doctor’s office
- Late fee charges
- Forwarding the debt to a collections agency
- Increasing letters and phone calls from the agency
- Legal action, such as wage garnishment
If a medical bill isn’t paid after a certain period of time, it can be turned over to a debt collection agency.
So long as a medical bill is yours, it’s accurate and you owe the money, then debt collectors can contact you to try to collect it, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Letting your medical bills linger in collections is a bad idea. Debt collectors can actually sue you to recover the money.
If they win the lawsuit, the debt collector can garnish wages from your bank account or place a lien on your home.
To avoid having your bill sent to collections, call the hospital or doctor’s office billing department and work with them to create a payment plan you can afford — then stick to it.
How Unpaid Medical Bills Impact Your Credit Score
Unpaid medical bills won’t hurt your credit score right away. But if you ignore them long enough, your credit score will suffer.
First, your medical provider will need to send the bill to a collection agency. That could take anywhere from one to six months. Then, the collection agency must try to collect on the debt for a full year before it appears on your credit reports.
If the agency reports the unpaid medical debt to credit reporting agencies, it will appear on your credit reports under payment history, which makes up about 35% of your credit scores.
The exact impact depends on your credit situation, but even someone with a good credit score could see a drop of as much as 50 to 100 points, though the effect will lessen over time
Unpaid medical debts can linger on your credit report for up to seven years but changes earlier this year mean that bills you’ve paid off after being sent to collections won’t show on your credit report.
Your credit score impacts many things in your life. A bad credit score can keep you from opening a new credit card or skyrocket your interest rate on a new loan.
So Why Wouldn’t You Pay Your Medical Bills?
Well, some of us can’t afford unexpected medical bills.
More than 100 million people in the U.S. live with medical debt, according to a recent joint research project from NPR and the Kaiser Health Network released in July 2022.
The poll found that more than half of U.S. adults say they’ve gone into debt because of medical or dental bills in the past five years.
Medical debt isn’t just a problem for the uninsured or underinsured. It can also come from billing issues, like out-of-network doctors, hospitals or ambulance rides people thought were in-network.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau aired its concerns about the use of medical collections — a main point being that many consumers are unaware their medical debt even exists, unlike unpaid utility and phone bills.
The agency found that 58% of bills in collections and on people’s credit records are medical bills.
Here Are 6 Ways to Tackle Your Unpaid Medical Bills
The best advice, as with almost any financial matter, is to stay proactive.
1. Check for Errors
“First, get a detailed, itemized statement to see if you even owe it and that it’s accurate,” said Pat Palmer, Medical Billing Advocates of America founder and CEO.
If you have health insurance coverage, make sure the claim was correctly submitted to your health insurance company and they paid their share.
Check your itemized billing statement for duplicate items, services you didn’t receive and charges that your health insurance company should have picked up.
Call the hospital billing department or your provider’s office manager with questions or if something doesn’t look right. Remember: You have the right to demand to know what you’re paying for.
You can also ask the provider not to send the bill to collections until you can make a payment. This isn’t guaranteed to work, but still worth trying.
2. Try to Negotiate Your Bill
If you find you do owe the bill, try calling and negotiating with your medical provider.
You might be able to negotiate your medical bill to a smaller amount or set up a repayment schedule, Palmer said.
Start the negotiation process with the medical provider — the hospital or doctor’s office where you got care. Medical providers may ask for proof of income or other financial statements.
Negotiating your medical bill can help get part of the unpaid debt forgiven. Or you might be able to work out a lower payment or a no-interest payment plan.
If the provider can’t or won’t negotiate and the bill is in collections, then ask the bill collector if you can settle for a lesser amount.
Providers and debt collectors are often willing to negotiate because they rather get some money from you than nothing at all.
If you’re successful, get details about the payment plan and the new amount you owe in writing. This way you have a record of your agreement with the provider or debt collection company.
3. Ask About Financial Assistance Programs
Owe a big hospital bill? Call the hospital’s billing department and see if they offer financial assistance for unpaid medical bills.
If you make less than the federal poverty income level, you could qualify for the hospital’s charity care program, which covers the medical expenses of patients with low incomes.
Even if you make two to three times the federal poverty level, you’re still likely to qualify for a discount on your bill.
Just make sure to speak with the billing department within 90 days of getting the bill.
4. Know Your Rights and Advocate for Yourself
Consumers are enjoying more protections from the credit-damaging consequences of medical debt than they used to.
In 2022, the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — announced that paid medical bills will no longer be included on credit reports issued by those companies.
In the past, a medical bill that went to collections could linger on your credit report for years — even after you paid it off.
Another change in 2022: Medical bills only show up on your credit report if they go unpaid for at least 12 months. (It used to be six months).
And starting in March 2023, the three major credit bureaus will not include information on medical bills in collection for amounts of $500 or less on consumer credit reports.
Here are two rights you have, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau:
Your Rights According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
- Medical debt collectors can’t engage in aggressive collection tactics, like calling you around the clock, harassing you or contacting you through social media pretending to be someone else. You have the right to tell collections agencies to stop contacting you. Learn about your rights in the debt collection process and how to file a complaint.
- Debt collectors can’t report a medical bill to the three credit bureaus without trying to collect the debt from you first. Here’s how to dispute an error on your credit report.
In August 2022, VantageScore announced all paid and unpaid medical debt — regardless of how much is owed or how long the debt has been in collections — will be excluded from 3.0 or 4.0 score calculations by mid-October 2022.
Finally, The No Surprises Act protects you from receiving surprise bills from out-of-network providers you didn’t choose in a medical emergency. This rule went into effect January 2022.
5. Get Outside Help
Medical bill advocate organizations can help negotiate bills on your behalf. They can also detect billing errors the average patient might miss.
Medical bill advocates come at a cost, though. They often charge by the hour (think $100 an hour or more), or they take a percentage of the amount they’re able to get reduced from the bill (usually 25% to 35%).
6. Get Your Medical Bills Under $500 Before March 2023
In the first half of 2023, all medical debt less than $500 will no longer appear on credit reports from the three major bureaus.
Another bit of good news: Any medical bill under $500 that you receive after March 1, 2022 won’t go on your credit report either.
If you have unpaid medical debt, you might want to consider getting it below $500 so that it will no longer appear on your credit report in 2023.