Data Shows Too Many Americans Being Pestered About Medical Debt They Don’t Owe

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What’s worse than being overwhelmed by medical debt after a hospital stay or doctor’s visit? Being told you owe money for healthcare procedures and services you never received. Yet, a new analysis of federal data shows that too many Americans are being pestered to pay off medical debt that they don’t actually owe. 

That’s according to a new report [PDF] from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group.

The study’s authors analyzed nearly 18,000 medical debt collection complaints filed in the last three years with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and found that a majority of people who complained to the CFPB about this issue didn’t owe the debt they were being hassled about.

Not My Debt

Nearly two-thirds of the 17,700 medical debt-collection complaints in the CFPB database were filed by people who didn’t owe the debt because it either wasn’t theirs, had already been paid, or had been discharged through bankruptcy.

Nearly 24% of consumers said the debt they were contacted about wasn’t theirs, 21% said the debt was paid, 15% said they weren’t given enough information to verify the debt, 8% said they weren’t given the right to dispute the debt, and 7% said the collector tried gave them the wrong amount.

Aggressive Tactics

In addition to gripes about inaccurate debt-collection attempts, consumers complained that medical debt collectors used aggressive or illegal tactics in order to entice consumers to pay.

The report found that about 37% of medical debt complaints filed with the CFPB involved aggressive tactics, including frequent or repeated calls, calls harassing friends and family, threats of legal action, or the use of abusive language.

In one complaint submitted in 2016, a consumer wrote that debt collectors had harassed family members. Another complaint alleges that a company called the mother of the debtor’s boyfriend about the alleged debt, using false information and abusive language.

Bad Players Everywhere

According to the report, more than 1,000 companies contributed to these medical debt collection issues. However, just 10 companies accounted for more than 20% of all complaints. The most complained about companies were: Transworld Systems Inc., Commonwealth Financial Systems, Inc., Tenet HealthCare Corporation, Expert Global Solutions, Inc., and CMRE Financial Services, Inc.

Several of these companies have previously faced consumer enforcement action. Transworld — through its parent company Expert Global Solutions — was fined $3.2 million for harassing consumers in 2013. Tenet HealthCare was ordered to pay $5.4 million to consumers over failure to provide validation of debt.

The report also detailed just where debt collection abuse was more prevalent. For example, consumers living in Nevada filed the most medical debt collection complaints per capita.

In Nevada, 11.4 complaints were filed per 100,000 residents. Florida accounted for 9.3 complaints per 100,000 residents, followed by Delaware with nine complaints, 7.7 complaints in Georgia, and 7.4 complaints in New Jersey.

While impact of these medical debt collection issues on credit reports is not categorized by the CFPB, the report found they appear to be a significant source of complaints. About 1,810 complaint narratives submitted to the CFBP contain a reference to a consumer’s “credit report.”

In one narrative submitted to the CFPB, a consumer said they found debt on their credit report despite the fact that the health care provider confirmed that there were no payments owed. The consumer notes that they had asked to company to remove the debt, but that the request was refused multiple times.

Looking To The Future

According to U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group, the report illustrates the need for the CFPB.

“Consumers deserve protection from unfair, aggressive, and illegal medical debt collection,” Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Program Director for PIRG, said in a statement. “Fortunately, they have a powerful resource in the CFPB, which has already taken multiple actions against collection companies that break the law while collecting medical debt.”

The groups also provided a number of recommendations to improve medical debt collection:

• Stop debt collectors and buyers from collecting debts without proper information and documentation about the debt and records of prior communications with the consumer.

• Stop debt collectors from bringing robo-signed cases in court.

• Crack-down on widespread use of threats, harassment and embarrassment in debt collection, and make it easier for the consumer to demand a stop to unwanted communications.

• Protect servicemembers by strictly limiting contact with their commanders to verifications of address.