Hold collectors at bay by keeping accounts current

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I am 23-year-old graduate student trying to get on my feet. A little over a year ago I had a life-and-death situation and had to go to the emergency room. The first emergency room could not do anything for me so I had to go to another hospital. Now I have huge bills from both hospitals.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a collection agency concerning the bill from the second hospital. I informed them that I am unable to pay because I'm not working and am currently attempting to pay off the first hospital bill. 

Not long before I got sick and had to go to the emergency room, I got married. Now the collection agency is threatening to garnish my new husband's wages. It is already difficult to be a college student and not contribute to the household income. I got really upset when they were unsympathetic, even though I told them that as soon as I finished off the first doctor bill I would start paying on their bill. The collection agency was very rude and threatened to process my account and attempt to collect the debt. 

It is hard being a newlywed and now I feel like I have become a burden to my husband and my marriage due to a hospital bill.  We do not have any medical insurance because we cannot afford any. I don't know what to do and am open to suggestions. -- Jessica

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Jessica,
I know you feel bad about not contributing to the family finances and now having big medical bills, but you and your husband are in this together "in sickness and in health." He wouldn't have married you if he thought you were a burden. Besides, you should have many, many years to make it up to him.

If you live in a community property state -- Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin -- unfortunately the collection agency is right. New York attorney Edward E. Neiger says, "If this is a community state, then a spouses' wages are considered marital property and they can be garnished."

"In a noncommunal property state, wages are safe," Neiger says. If you don't live in one of the states listed, the collection agency is bluffing. They cannot garnish your husband's wages.

Either way, you are liable for the bill. I'm curious as to why you are paying the hospital that didn't help you before you pay the one that apparently saved your life. If it were me, I'd be more anxious to pay the second one. I might even challenge the first hospital bill, depending on how far they got before they decided they couldn't do anything!

In any case, it's seldom a good idea to make payments just to one creditor and expect the other creditor to wait their turn. Hospitals will take your other bills into consideration when they figure out what you can pay, but hospital No. 2 is not going to wait for its first payment until hospital No. 1 is paid in full.

You may be able to get your hospital bill reduced or forgiven in your situation. However, it won't happen unless you ask. Go to the patient accounts services department of the hospital and ask to speak to a representative. Be prepared to give information about your monthly income and expenses. They will generally take your case to a committee and get back to you with the results.

When you know how much of the bill you have left to pay, sit down with a patient accounts representative and ask to work out a payment plan. Once you have a plan and are sticking to it, you won't have to worry about collection agencies or garnishment of wages.

Don't take it personally when collection agencies are rude. It's not their job to be sympathetic. Their job is to scare, shame or otherwise somehow get you to send them money. As unpleasant as that is, there are some people out there who wouldn't pay their bills any other way. The bill collectors can't tell you, as a person who is doing the best you can, from the deadbeats who don't try.

Don't even waste your time talking to collection agencies on the phone. If they call again, tell them to communicate with you only by mail. By law, they cannot keep calling you after you've told them to stop.

As you've discovered, a medical emergency can happen to anyone, at any age. As soon as possible, find a way to get catastrophic insurance for you and your husband so you won't find yourself in this situation again.

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See related: Stuck with husband's debt in community property states?, When your spouse's debt collection becomes your nightmare, Learn your options when dealing with medical debt, Know your rights: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

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Updated: 01-21-2018