If you’ve ever been sued by a debt collector or service provider over medical debt, you know how stressful it can be. If you couldn’t afford to pay the original debt, you likely still can’t afford it. And if you want to defend yourself, you’ll have to face the additional time and cost of going to court.
You should know that you’re not alone. According to staff attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center, when you look at debt collection items on credit reports in America, “half of those items are from medical debt. Not credit cards. Not auto loans. Medical debt.”
You may be tempted to ignore the suit because you know you can’t pay, but Wu advises against inaction.
“Always show up,” she said. “Never ignore a lawsuit. If you ignore it, the debt collector or service provider on the other side automatically wins by default.”
What happens when you show up, though? Here are the steps to take if you’re facing a medical debt lawsuit.
1. Find out where the debt comes from
You can’t properly address your lawsuit if you don’t understand where the debt comes from. If you look back at your past bills, you should be able to find a date of service and itemized list of services rendered with associated costs.
You may be in debt because you’re uninsured, but even insured patients can end up in this boat, thanks in part to a rise in high-deductible health plans. Mistakes can happen as well. If a patient visits an in-network hospital, but is unknowingly seen by an out-of-network doctor, he or she can be charged out-of-network fees. Doctors are independent contractors, so while the hospital may be affiliated with your insurance company, that doesn’t mean your service provider is in-network.
2. Don’t ignore the lawsuit
In many consumer debt cases, people don’t have an attorney. Hiring an attorney to advise you can be a wise move, however. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either, Wu says.
Most lawyers will provide a free consult before taking you on as a client. In this consult, they may be able to help you find your bearings so you can represent yourself.
Wu recommends seeking help from the Legal Services Corporation, a government-supervised nonprofit that provides legal representation at a low cost to lower-income households. You can also seek help from nonprofit legal assistance firms in your area.
If you’re uninsured, one way to keep the case from going to court is to contact the doctor or debt collector immediately to negotiate your bill down to Medicaid/Medicare prices — which are often two to three times less than that of the gross price you were billed. When a provider refuses to negotiate down to these lower rates, it’s called “discriminatory pricing,” and your legal counsel may recommend using this as a defense in court.
3. Prepare for court
The first thing you must do is prepare an answer to the lawsuit, including any defenses or countersuits that you want to raise. This will involve filing paperwork at the court, mailing paperwork and showing up on your initial court date. Again, it’s advisable to get a lawyer to help you through this, or at least to get a consult. The National Association of Consumer Advocates has a helpful video explainer on preparing to defend a medical debt lawsuit.
It’s important to make this initial court date. It is very unlikely the judge will grant you a continuance that would move the court date further out.
There are some exceptions to this. If you are being sued in a state in which you no longer reside, it’s easier to mount a defense if you can’t appear in court. In fact, appearing could work against you, demonstrating to the court that you have no problem traveling from state to state.
If you’ve been served in a state outside of your own, it’s very important to get legal representation.
This is because you must answer the suit, but you must also do so in a way that does not imply you are submitting to that court’s jurisdiction over you. This process is one that is best handled by someone trained in law.
After you answer the suit, the court will set a date for the discovery part of the trial. You’ll have to file more paperwork with the court before this date so you are able to present evidence that you aren’t liable for the debt.
4. Understand wage garnishment
If you’re found liable for the debt, or you fail to answer the lawsuit and the judge rules against you, the court may issue an order giving the lender or collection agency the ability to garnish your wages. By federal law, they cannot leave you with less than 75% of your income, or $217.50 per week — whichever is greater. State law may protect you even further.
Medical debt collectors are able to garnish your wages, but they cannot garnish Social Security benefits, disability insurance payments, unemployment insurance payments, VA benefits, pension distributions, child support payments or public assistance benefits. If you have any of these forms of income, it’s wise to set up a different bank account where those funds are deposited, and keep all garnishable wages in another account.
You should do this because a court order can go after your bank account balances, too. While that doesn’t make it legal to take money that came from any of these protected sources, separate bank accounts will make the incidence of errors smaller — saving you headaches and potential victimization.
5. Know Your Rights
When it comes to medical billing and debts, you do have rights as a patient. Make sure you understand them so you can lower or eliminate your bill before or after you’ve been sued.
Were you served properly?
Sometimes wages are garnished before the plaintiff is even aware that there’s a lawsuit. This happens most commonly when you’re improperly served. Examples of using “improperly served” as a legal defense include papers being only mailed to you and not delivered in person, papers being left at an incorrect residence or papers being mailed to an old address. Being “improperly served” does not mean the papers were left with a family member or friend at your residence and they forgot to tell you about it. If that happened, you’re still on the hook.
If you have been improperly served, or if you find out that the court mistakenly started garnishing wages because you have the same name as an actual plaintiff, you should contact a lawyer immediately to figure out what can be done to address your specific situation.
6. Get low-cost or free help from financial assistance programs
In 2016, about 58% of community hospitals in the U.S. were not-for-profit, according to the American Hospital Association. This gives them tax-exempt status, but also obligates them to give back to their communities. Under the Affordable Care Act, these hospitals must provide some type of financial assistance program to low-income patients. Even if you aren’t from a low-income household, you should apply, as some hospitals extend their programs far beyond the poverty line. Many hospitals also extend this program to insured patients.
These hospitals have an obligation to let you know about their financial assistance programs within four months of when your bill has been issued.
You have until eight months after the initial bill was issued to apply for financial assistance. You have the right to do this even if the debt has been sold to a third-party collector, and even if that collector is the one suing you in court.
7. Be aware of discriminatory pricing
We’ve already touched on the fact that you can try to negotiate your medical bills down to Medicaid/Medicare prices. If you are being sued in court and are uninsured, discriminatory pricing can serve as a defense. If you qualify for the hospital’s financial assistance program, they legally must reduce your bill to the amount generally billed to insured patients.
8. Look out for balance billing
Balance billing happens when your hospital or medical provider bills you instead of or in addition to Medicaid or Medicare. It’s a forbidden practice, and you are not responsible for any amounts due when this happens.
You may be able to identity balance billing if you receive an “Explanation of Benefits” from your insurer that states the amount they covered and the amount you still owe. If this does not match the bill your medical provider sent you, there is cause for concern. Additionally, if the bill you receive does not show any payment from your insurance when you are, in fact, on Medicaid or Medicare, it may be a sign that you’re a victim of balance billing.
9. Stop lawsuits before they begin
If something about your bill doesn’t look quite right, there are ways to reduce it to a fair amount.
First of all, make sure the hospital didn’t make an error that resulted in a larger bill. One way this could happen is if something they did caused you to have to stay in the hospital an extra night, inflating your costs beyond what they should have been originally.
Another good avenue to pursue is to have your bill examined by a medical bill advocate. They’re familiar with coding and laws that you’re not. You may find one in your community by asking around, or you can start your search with the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.
Debt collectors, hospitals and other medical providers don’t want to take you to court. It costs them money, and the odds of them actually getting a full payment are very low. They are almost always willing to work with you before launching a lawsuit. Negotiate. Apply for financial assistance. Set up zero-interest payment plans directly with your health care provider.
Keep the lines of communication open so no one ends up with the additional costs of litigation.
10. Weigh bankruptcy
At any point in this process, you can choose to file for bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy may alleviate the medical debt. Just be cautious. Bankruptcy is not a decision that should be made lightly, as it will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years and make it difficult to qualify for new credit.
There are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 requires you to sell off all your assets to settle what you can of your debt obligations. If you don’t have any or many assets, that aspect of it doesn’t matter much. What will matter is that the debt will essentially disappear after you file.
If you file for Chapter 13, you do not have to sell off any assets, but the debt won’t disappear either. Instead, you’ll be put on a three- to five-year payment plan in order to settle.
This may make sense if the court has already issued an order against your wages, but at any other point in your case, it would make more sense to try to set up a payment plan with the medical service provider or debt collection agency directly. Their last resort is wage garnishment. Don’t let it get that far. Know your rights so you can negotiate with them effectively rather than damaging your credit through bankruptcy.
Being served with a medical debt lawsuit can be a scary experience. However, understanding your rights and getting assistance from a patient advocate should help make the experience a bit less harrowing.