It’s a nightmarish scenario — you pay your credit card bills, car payments and loans all time, but when your credit report arrives… WHAM. Medical debt rears its ugly head and mucks up your life in a real way — even if you pay it. After hearing from one Consumerist reader who was shocked to discover a major dent in his credit score because of one $72 hospital bill, we asked for more stories from our readers to highlight what a very real problem this is.
There are legislators out there trying to wipe medical debt off credit reports entirely, including Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who recently reintroduced the Medical Debt Responsibility Act of 2013. But because a similar bill didn’t make it far before petering out, we wanted to make it crystal clear how widespread of an issue this really is — and the deep impact it can have on the 75 million Americans it affects.
We heard from a whole lot of readers, and have pulled a few of those stories to illustrate the grip medical debt has on credit reports.
Back in September 2010, Gregg writes that he had a freak emergency room visit after passing out in the aisle of a grocery store. Thanks to a good samaritan, he made it to the hospital by ambulance. Doctors ran a series of tests and chalked it up to a combination of low blood sugar and low blood pressure. He says that while his insurance covered a good chunk of the bill, he knew he’d have to pay some as well.
He admits that his busy schedule as a full-time student took up a lot of his time, and he pushed the bill to the back of his mind. Come December 2012 and Gregg had quite a shock: His credit score was “a paltry 492,” and he says he was aghast as he’s always paid his bills on time. He checked his credit report and found 62 separate collection accounts for “Unpaid Medical Expenses.”
He immediately contacted the collection agency and the hospital, and discovered that the hospital had the wrong address for him in the system. The hospital admitted their mistake and canceled the collection attempt, while he paid the bill immediately. But that wasn’t the end of things:
Here’s the frustration: The credit collection agency decided to create a separate account for EACH LINE ITEM of my hospital bill, thereby creating 62 separate accounts, all of which negatively affect my credit in a cumulative manner. The collection agency also now refuses to rescind those collection accounts, and has instead marked all of them PAID. This is different than if they would have canceled the accounts, and my credit is now permanently affected for the next 7 years! I am told that there is nothing that I can do, and the woman at the collection agency had the audacity to tell me that I should just have paid my bill in the first place, even after I explained what happened! I do not feel that this is my problem, since the hospital even admitted that they made the mistake in the first place.
Consumerist reader Eddie wrote in on behalf of his partner, who had some dental work done. The dental clinic accidentally billed the old insurance company they had on file, instead of his current insurance which he had provided information for at the time of service. When the old company refused to pay, the clinic tried to bill him.
Again, a mistyped address comes in to play — the couple never received the bills, and no one bothered calling them. The bill was sent to a collection agency (which managed to get their address correct). They paid the bill immediately, but the agency has refused to remove the account from his credit report and the clinic denies responsibility.
It has a very real consequence, writes Eddie: “This one account, even though it’s paid, has damaged his good credit score and has disqualified him from getting a mortgage for our first house together.”
“How odd,” writes Jonathan of reading our request for stories about medical debt, “I just had this happen to me.”
Jonathan pulled his credit report and found 40-point drop because of a medical bill for $23. He says he didn’t get a call or a letter from anyone because… they had the wrong address. Somehow his insurance was charged correctly, however. He writes that it was a valid bill for tests and he’d already paid everything else — ”I just didn’t know there was a second bill coming.”
It’s tough to pay a bill you don’t expect when it isn’t even sent to you in the first place.
“Paid it right away, but still took a hit for something that I couldn’t have prevented,” Jonathan writes.
One $60 paid collection is mucking up two out of three of Jennifer’s credit reports, she writes. She explains that every month she has to go to the doctor for medication management, and always has a co-pay in varying amounts after the first five visits.
During one of those visits, she asked how much her co-pay would be, and was told there wasn’t one. She insisted that she always has one, but the receptionist responded that the system said no, there was no co-pay, and she couldn’t take her money with a zero balance in the computer.
This happened a few times over the next few months and she was told the same thing — if they needed her to pay something, they’d bill her. Nine months later a bill did show up, but was already marked delinquent because it dated back to that first visit where her money was refused.
Jennifer’s account ended up in collections, even though she’d paid the bill within 24 hours of receiving the bill. And while the doctor’s billing office was great — they admitted fault and called the debt collection agency to have it wiped from her credit report — the account remained on two of her other credit reports.
Numerous phone calls later, the debt collection agency was adamant that only the doctor’s office could remove the information. The doctor’s office contacted them again and told the debt collection agency that they had to remove the information, because the billing office didn’t do any credit reporting. The collection agency still has not removed the information. Now I am basically waiting for 2015 to roll around so the negative information ages off my report.
If you weren’t concerned about this issue before, perhaps you are now — after all, any one of us could be one transposed address away from getting into the same kind of situation. These stories are just a drop in the deep medical debt bucket, and all the more reason to get such debt wiped from credit reports.