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Paying medical bills: Things to know

How medical debt affects your credit, where it should fit into your budget and more

Summary

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.

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Unpaid debt like mortgages, car loans, student loans and credit card debt differs 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.

Continue reading to learn how you can create a plan to reduce your debt and preserve your credit score.

What if you can’t pay your medical debt?

Unpaid medical bills do not impact your credit report or credit score 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 score 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 of consumer education and awareness at Experian.

Unpaid and delinquent medical debt that ends up on your credit report remains there for seven years. To avoid this, keep in mind the following:

  • 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 negatively impact your credit score.
  • 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 your budget.

Strategies for paying off medical debt

Being proactive can be the first step in preserving your credit.

Try negotiating

According to Griffin, if you have medical bills that will be difficult to pay, your first goal should be to keep your debt out of collections while you work to understand your charges, says Griffin. 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 8 ¾ percent, 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 or over 20 percent 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 and CRO of Freedom Debt Relief.

If you have exhausted all other options for paying down your medical debt and must use a credit card, consider using one that offers 0 percent APR for a long 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 financed 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.

Bottom line

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.”

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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