Key Take Aways:
- Medical debt may affect your credit score if unpaid for more than a year.
- If your medical bill has already been sent to debt collection, you have options.
- You may be able to negotiate an out-of-network medical bill.
That gives you a little time to figure out if you were billed correctly, if your out-of-network benefits were applied correctly, and if so, to understand your options—including negotiating with the provider for a more affordable price. This article can help instruct you on how to do that.
If having unpaid bills makes you feel uneasy, know that you’re not alone. What if the bill gets sent to a debt collection agency before you’ve had a chance to resolve it? Can an unpaid medical bill be reflected in your credit report? Will your credit score suffer if you don’t pay it? Here are a few words of advice.
First, avoid debt collection if you can.
Ask your provider if it’s possible to put the account on hold while you try to resolve or negotiate the bill. (If you’re working with Naviguard, we will ask the same.) If your provider isn’t willing to put the account on hold, see if they’ll accept a nominal payment instead—even $25 or $50—towards your cost share of the bill. That helps demonstrate good faith—that you take any obligation seriously and are working toward a fair resolution.
Medical Bill already sent to debt collection? Stay calm.
You still have a few possible courses of action: You can contact the provider and ask them to pull the bill back from the collection agency and put it on hold. Or you can contact the collection agency, tell them the bill is being disputed and needs to be sent back to the provider. Even though you may feel pressured, it may be best to hold off sending payment to a debt collector until you can first explore resolving with the provider—sending payment to the debt collector maybe considered acknowledgement of the debt and could impact your ability to dispute the charges later. For a more thorough understanding of debt collection and your rights, check out the details of the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act.
Keep an eye on your credit report.
Medical debt may affect your credit score if the account has gone unpaid for more than a year.
However, there are some new rules created to help consumers. Once an outstanding medical debt has been paid off, it will no longer be reflected on your credit report—as of July 1, 2022. And after January 1, 2023, medical debt of less than $500 won’t be included on credit reports at all. But beware of paying any medical debt with a credit card, since credit card debt isn’t subject to the same protections as medical debt.
If you’re concerned about the impact of medical debt on your credit score, you can check your credit report. Everyone is entitled to one free report yearly from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. To see yours, submit a free request online.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act is your friend.
If you see medical debt on your credit report, and you believe you were incorrectly charged, or think you were charged an unreasonable amount for the services you received, you can file a dispute with the credit reporting agency. The FCRA requires that any consumer dispute be investigated—and both the provider and the credit agency must prove the validity of the debt. And—especially good to know, if you submit a dispute within the first 30 days after a debt collection agency first contacts you, the collector cannot ask for payment until after the dispute is settled.
Need more support? Tap an attorney.
You may want to consider speaking to an attorney or seeking free legal aid if you qualify. An attorney can provide specific support for your situation and advise or represent you in case of lawsuit or court summons. For your pocketbook and peace of mind, it’s good to have the law on your side.
About Naviguard, the authors of this article.
We’re a team of health insurance experts and experienced negotiators who deal solely with out-of-network medical bills. Our website has many helpful consumer resources—and if your health plan includes our services, we may be able to provide additional guidance and support. In the last three years, we’ve helped thousands of members navigate difficult out-of-network billing challenges.