About 43 million Americans have overdue medical debt on their credit reports, according to a new report out today by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This means about one in five credit reports contain medical debt that’s been turned over to a collection agency, often dragging down consumers’ credit scores.
Unlike a credit card bill or an auto loan, medical bills often takes people by surprise, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
“Nobody chooses to say, ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to go the emergency room for an appendectomy,’” she says.
“Many people who walk into doctor’s office have absolutely no idea [the] expense they’re about to incur,” adds Dan Mendelson, CEO of Avalere Health, a consulting firm.
Even if patients do ask, it can be difficult to get an answer.
“You’re in a system that is not ready to tell you how much things are going to cost,” says Mendelson.
Moreover, uninsured consumers often pay the highest rates for services, which they can’t afford.
For those patients with insurance, Wu says “there are billing errors [and] the providers might use the wrong codes. What happens is that if the bill gets too old, it automatically gets sent to a debt collector.”
That can ding consumers’ credit scores, which impact more than just interest rates and loan applications, says Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America.
“It can be used by employers to decide whether or not to hire you, by landlords to decide whether or not to rent to you, by your insurance company to determine you rates,” she says.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is currently reviewing debt collection processes and will require the major credit reporting agencies to submit reports on how consumer disputes are handled.