Unlike some other types of debt, you don’t get to choose whether or not you get sick or need medical care. Unpaid medical bills do not impact your credit scores unless they are severely delinquent and sent to collections. But if it does end up on your credit report, it remains there for seven years.
Unpaid debt like mortgages, car loans, student loans and credit card debt differ from medical debt, because the circumstances are almost always beyond your control. Generally, people don’t choose medical debt, but it can still catch you unaware and cause a financial burden.
With the COVID pandemic in full swing – according to CNN, almost 68 million cases have been reported as of Dec. 8, 2020 – it’s essential that you educate yourself so you’re not surprised by any medical debt resulting from testing or treatment.
Read on to learn how medical debt can affect your credit and how you can set a plan in place to reduce your debt and preserve your credit score.
Do medical bills affect your credit?
Unpaid medical bills do not impact your credit report or credit scores unless they are severely delinquent and sent to collections.
Like other debts – your mortgage, car loan or student loan – if medical bills are paid on time, they have no impact on your credit scores or your credit report.
“An unpaid medical debt will not be included in your credit report unless it is 180 days or more past due,” says Rod Griffin, senior director consumer education and awareness at Experian.
How long medical collections stay on your credit report
Unpaid and delinquent medical debt that ends up on your credit report remains there for seven years.
“Since your repayment history makes up the largest part of your credit score, having medical debt in collections can negatively affect your scores for years,” Griffin says. “If you think you are going to miss a medical bill payment, the best thing you can do to protect your financial health is be proactive. Contact your provider before you miss a payment and see if they are willing to work with you.”
Checking your credit report regularly can help you spot any debts that you may not realize have gone into collections, especially if they were sent to an old address.
To make sure your personal and financial information is correct, check your credit reports a few times a year. This safeguard also makes sure fraudulent accounts are not opened in your name. If you find errors on your credit report, take steps to have them corrected.
To receive a free credit report, visit AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. Everyone is entitled by law to a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) once per year. Additionally, the three bureaus are offering free credit reports on a weekly basis through April 2021. You can request all three reports at once or request them one at a time.
Some good news: According to Experian, the FICO 9 and VantageScore 3.0 and 4.0 credit scoring models all give less weight to unpaid medical collections than to other debts. FICO 9 also ignores collection accounts if the original unpaid balance was less than $100. Furthermore, the three credit bureaus remove medical debt that has gone to collections from your credit history once it is paid off.
What if you can’t pay your medical debt?
- Be responsible. If you’re already behind on a medical bill and it has gone into collections, don’t ignore it – having an account in collections can take a toll on your credit.
- Verify your medical debt. Make sure the amount they’re saying you owe is accurate. Request an itemized bill and confirm the charges.
- It’s wise to ask your medical provider or the collections agency if they will negotiate with you. “Their goal is to get money back, so they may be willing to accept a lump-sum payment or repayment plan, and sometimes they will agree to let you repay an amount that’s less than what you owe,” says Griffin.
- Contact a nonprofit credit counseling service. A certified credit counselor can work with you to create a debt-repayment plan that fits in your budget.
Strategies for paying medical debt
Being proactive can be the first step in preserving your credit.
If you’re facing medical bills that will be difficult to pay, Griffin says your first objective is to keep your debt out of collections while you work to understand your charges. You should negotiate with your medical provider and figure out the best way to pay off your debt. “Most hospitals and medical providers would rather work with you to help you find a way to pay than send your bill to collections,” he says.
Explore assistance programs
It may be worth the time, effort and research to look into programs that assist with medical expenses. “Some hospitals and medical providers make accommodations for patients with low incomes and high levels of debt, so you can see if you qualify for an income-driven hardship plan,” says Griffin. Similarly, you can ask your medical care provider if it has a financial assistance policy or charity care program.
Consider a payment plan
Once you realize that you are having difficulty meeting your debts, contact your medical provider and request a payment plan – before it is turned over to a collections agency. “You may be able to work out a payment plan directly with your medical provider, possibly even with low or no interest. Just be sure to get your repayment agreement in writing,” Griffin continues.
Check the accuracy of your medical bills
A good approach is to request an itemized bill and make sure there are no unreasonable or duplicate charges.
“Not everyone has the time or energy to wrangle and decipher itemized bills,” says Jonathan Howard, a certified financial planner and financial advisor at SeaCure Advisors.
In these cases, consumers may consider hiring a medical billing advocate.
“These services are not free, but the cost can be worth it relative to the expense of paying for an erroneous charge,” he says. To find one, contact an agency like the Claims Assistance Professionals and Advocates.
Should you use a credit card to pay medical debt?
Because medical debt is currently capped at an interest rate of 9 3/8%, according to the Federal Department of Health and Human Services, using a credit card to cover medical debt isn’t prudent.
“Credit cards can charge interest rates near and over 20% and often include annual fees,” says Howard. “Medical debt also has consumer protections that you will not find with credit cards.”
And once you use a credit card for medical debt, you may lose medical bill protection.
“Once your debt is owed to your credit card provider, there is no distinguishing whether the debt was from a hospital, a vacation or a trip to the mall,” says Sean Fox, president of Freedom Debt Relief.
If you have exhausted other ways to pay down your medical debt, and you must use a credit card, consider using one that offers 0% APR for a lengthy introductory period and rewards that can help offset the cost of your medical bills.
Should you consider a medical credit card?
Medical credit cards are financing in the form of a credit card for medical services. These cards can be used for out-of-pocket expenses, treatments and procedures not covered by your insurance. They’re typically offered at your provider’s office.
Medical credit cards generally offer deferred interest plans, which means you don’t pay interest charges on qualifying purchases for a specified grace period. But the debt is not interest-free – it is deferred during a specific time frame. If you don’t pay off the balance by the deadline, you’ll owe accrued interest starting from the original date of your account opening.
See related: Best credit cards for medical bills
Unlike with some other types of debt, you don’t get to choose whether or not you get sick or need medical care.
On the bright side, an unpaid medical debt does not get added to your credit report unless it is 180 days or more past due.
If you have a medical debt you can’t pay on time, contact the medical provider and inquire if you can work out a payment plan or negotiate your balance. As with any debt, it’s important to have a plan for paying it down.
“Look at your monthly expenses to determine how much you can contribute to your medical debt each month,” Griffin recommends. “Setting up reminders or autopay can be a helpful way to ensure you’re making timely payments.”