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5 Ways to Keep Medical Debt From Ruining Your Credit

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Your physical well-being isn’t the only thing at stake when you go to the hospital. So, too, is your financial health.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more than half of all collection notices on consumer credit reports stem from outstanding medical debt, and roughly 43 million consumers – nearly 20% of all those in the nationwide credit reporting system – have at least one medical collection on their credit report.

Now, you might be inclined to think that, because you’re young or have both a job and health insurance, medical debt poses you no risk. Think again. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly one-third of non-elderly adults report difficulty paying medical bills. Moreover, roughly 70% of people with medical debt are insured, mostly through employer-sponsored plans.

Not concerned yet? Consider that a medical collection notice on your credit report, even for a small bill, can lower your credit score 100 points or more. You can’t pay your way out of the mess after the fact, either. Medical debt notifications stay on your credit report for seven years after you’ve paid off the bill.

The good news is that you can often prevent medical debt from ruining your credit simply by being attentive and proactive. Here’s how.

Pay close attention to your bills

Certainly, a considerable portion of unpaid medical debt exists on account of bills so large and overwhelming that patients don’t have the ability to cover them. But many unpaid medical debts catch patients completely by surprise, according to Deanna Hathaway, a consumer and small business bankruptcy lawyer in Richmond, Va.

“Most people don’t routinely check their credit reports, assume everything is fine, and then a mark on their credit shows up when they go to buy a car or home,” Hathaway said.

The confusion often traces back to one of two common occurrences, according to Ron Sykstus, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in Birmingham, Ala.

“People usually get caught off guard either because they thought their insurance was supposed to pick something up and it didn’t, or because they paid the bill but it got miscoded and applied to the wrong account,” Sykstus said. “It’s a hassle, but track your payments and make sure they get where they are supposed to get.”

Stay in your network

One of the major ways insured patients wind up with unmanageable medical bills is through services rendered – often not known to the patient – by out-of-network providers, according to Kevin Haney, president of A.S.K. Benefit Solutions.

“You check into an in-network hospital and think you’re covered, but while you’re there, you’re treated by an out-of-network specialist such as an anesthesiologist, and then your coverage isn’t nearly as good,” Haney said. “The medical industry does a poor job of explaining this, and it’s where many people get hurt.”

According to Haney, if you were unknowingly treated by an out-of-network provider, it’s would not be unreasonable for you to contact the provider and ask them to bill you at their in-network rate.

“You can push back on lack of disclosure and negotiate,” Haney said. “They’re accepting much lower amounts for the same service with their in-network patients.”

Work it out with your provider BEFORE your bills are sent to collections

Even if you’re insured and are diligent about staying in-network, medical bills can still become untenable. Whether on account of a high deductible or an even higher out-of-pocket maximum, patients both insured and uninsured encounter medical bills they simply can’t afford to pay.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s critical to understand that most health care providers turn unpaid debt over to a collection agency, and it’s the agency that in turn reports the debt to the credit bureaus should it remain unpaid.

The key then is to be proactive about working out an arrangement with your health care provider before the debt is ever sent to a collection agency. And make no mistake – most providers are more than happy to work with you, according to Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com.

“The health care providers you owe know very well how crushing medical debt is,” he said. “They want to work with you, but they also need to get paid.”

If you receive a bill you can’t afford to pay in its entirety, you should immediately call your provider and negotiate.

“Most providers, if the bill is large, will recognize there’s a good chance you don’t have the money to pay it off all at once, and most of the time, they’ll work with you,” Dvorkin said. “But you have to be proactive about it. Don’t just hope it will go away. Call them immediately, explain your situation and ask for a payment plan.”

If the bill you’re struggling with is from a hospital, you may also have the option to apply for financial aid, according to Thomas Nitzsche, a financial educator with Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a personal finance counseling firm.

“Most hospitals are required to offer financial aid,” Nitzsche said. “They’ll look at your financials to determine your need, and even if you’re denied, just the act of applying usually extends the window within which you have to pay that bill.”

Negotiate with the collection agency

In the event that your debt is passed along to a collection agency, all is not immediately lost, Sykstus said.

“You can usually negotiate with the collection agency the same as you would with the provider,” he said. “Tell them you’ll work out a payment plan and that, in return, you’re asking them to not report it.”

Most collection agencies, according to Haney, actually have little interest in reporting debt to the credit bureaus.

“The best leverage they have to get you to pay is to threaten to report the bill to the credit agencies,” he said. “That means as soon as they report it, they’ve lost their leverage. So, they’re going to want to talk to you long before they ever report it to the bureau.

“Don’t duck their calls,” he added. “Talk to them and offer to work something out.”

Take out a personal loan

Refinancing your medical debt into a personal loan is another move you can consider making, particularly if you can get a lower interest rate than you could with a credit card, and you aren’t able to secure a 0% credit card deal. Peer-to-peer lender LendingClub has an APR starting at 6.95% and Prosper starts with an APR as low as 6.95%, and LendingClub‘s origination fee is 1.00% - 6.00%.

Even better, SoFi offers personal loans at a APR as low as 5.99% and has no origination fee (although you do need a relatively high minimum credit score to get a loan, at 680).

MagnifyMoney’s parent company, LendingTree, features a handy personal loan tool* where you can shop for the best loan for you.

*You may or may not be matched with any lender mentioned in this article. Based on your creditworthiness, you may be matched with up to five different lenders in our partner network.

Bottom line

Dealing with medical debt can be particularly stressful, as you have to worry about money matters along with managing health issues. However, having medical debt does not have to spell disaster. If you follow one or more of the steps above, you should be able to keep your finances healthy.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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How Weight Loss Helped This Couple Pay Down $22,000 of Debt

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Photo courtesy of Brian LeBlanc

Brian LeBlanc was fed up. The 30-year-old policy analyst from Alberta, Canada, had struggled with his weight for years. At the time, he weighed 240 pounds and had trouble finding clothes that fit. He decided it was time to change his lifestyle for good.

LeBlanc started running and cutting back on fast food and soft drinks. He ordered smaller portions at restaurants and avoided convenience-store foods. About a year into his weight-loss mission, his wife Erin, 31, joined him in his efforts.

“The biggest change we made was buying a kitchen food scale and measuring everything we eat,” Brian says. “Creating that habit was really powerful.”

Over two years, the couple shed a total of 170 pounds.

But losing weight, they soon realized, came with an unexpected fringe benefit — saving thousands of dollars per year. Often, people complain that it’s expensive to be healthy — gym memberships and fresh produce don’t come cheap, after all. But the LeBlancs found the opposite to be true.

Erin, who is a payroll specialist, also managed their household budget. She began noticing a difference in how little money they were wasting on fast food and unused grocery items.

Photo courtesy of Brian LeBlanc

“Before, we always had the best intentions of going to the grocery store and buying all the healthy foods. But we never ate them,” she says. “We ended up throwing out a lot of healthy food, vegetables, and fruits.”

Before their lifestyle change, Brian and Erin would often eat out for dinner, spending as much as $80 per week, and they would often go out with friends, spending about $275 a month. Now, Brian says if they grab fast food, they choose a smaller portion. Now they might spend only $22 on fast food per month, instead of over $200.

What’s changed the most is how they shop for groceries, what they buy and how they cook. Brian likes to prep all his meals on Sunday so his lunches during the week are consistent and portion-controlled. They also buy only enough fresh produce to last them a couple of days to prevent wasting food.

Losing weight — and student loan debt

Photo courtesy of Brian LeBlanc

Two years after the start of their weight-loss journey, they took a look at their bank statements to see how their spending had changed. By giving up eating out and drinking alcohol frequently, they were spending $600 less a month than they used to, even though they’ve had to buy new wardrobes and gym memberships.

With their newfound savings, the LeBlancs managed to pay off Brian’s $22,000 in student loans 13 years early. Even with the $600 they were now saving, they had to cut back significantly on their budget to come up with the $900-$1,000 they aimed to put toward his loans each month. They stopped meeting friends for drinks after work, and Erin took on a part-time job to bring in extra cash. When they needed new wardrobes because their old clothing no longer fit, they frequented thrift shops instead of the mall.

When they made the final payment after two years, it was a relief to say the least.

Now the Canadian couple is saving for a vacation home in Phoenix, which they hope to buy in the next few years, and they’re planning to tackle Erin’s student loans next. They’re happy with their weight and lives in general, but don’t take their journey for granted.

“There were times we questioned our sanity, and we thought we cannot do this anymore,” says Erin. But they would always rally together in the end.

“There are things that are worth struggling for and worth putting in the effort,” Brian says. “Hands down, your health is one of those things.”

Other Ways Getting Healthy Can Help Financially

Spending less on food isn’t the only way your budget can improve alongside your health. Read below to see how a little weight loss can tip the scales when it comes to your finances.

  • Spend less on medical bills. Health care costs have skyrocketed over the past two decades, but they’ve impacted overweight and obese individuals more. A report on the “state of obesity” in America found that obese adults spend 42% more on healthcare per year than those of normal weight.
  • Buy cheaper clothes. Designers frequently charge more for plus-size clothing than smaller sizes. Some people claim retailers add a “fat tax” on clothes because there are fewer options for anyone over a size 12. It might not be fair, but it’s the way things are.
  • Save on life insurance. Your health is a huge factor for life insurance rates. Annual premiums for a healthy person can cost more than for someone who is overweight, because BMI (body mass index) may be a factor for determining pricing.

Getting Healthy for Cheap

Still worried that an active lifestyle will require you to spend more money? Here are some tips on keeping costs low while you improve your lifestyle.

  • Get a family membership. Gyms often provide a discount if you sign up for a family membership instead of an individual one. Most of these deals are only beneficial for households with children, but some might offer a lower price if you sign up with a spouse or partner. Always ask the gym about any special deductions they might have.
  • Skip the fancy gym. Many would-be exercisers skip the gym pass because they assume it will be expensive. Before you give up, call around and compare prices. Try your local YMCA, as they often have income-based membership.
  • Shop at thrift stores. Finding inexpensive workout clothes can be another barrier to exercising. Who wants to spend $75 on yoga pants? Don’t visit the mall for your new duds. Your local thrift shop or consignment store will have running shorts and tank tops for only a few dollars. Secondhand clothes also make more sense if you’re in the midst of losing a lot of weight and changing sizes frequently.
  • Go vegetarian. Meat is often the most expensive item in your grocery cart. If you’re trying to eat healthier and concerned about money, try vegetarian protein options like lentils, beans,and quinoa. You don’t have to fully adopt the vegetarian lifestyle, but just reducing your meat intake can have a significant impact on the grocery bill.
  • Buy frozen produce. Frozen produce is often as healthy as buying fresh, but it can be significantly less expensive. Frozen veggies and fruit also last longer, decreasing the risk of food waste. You can often find coupons, and the long shelf life makes it easy to stock up if there’s a sale on your favorite green beans.
  • Cut back on eating out. Ever wonder how restaurant-quality food can be so much better than what you make at home? You guessed it: more salt, more sugar, more butter and more fat. By limiting the meals you eat out, you’ll avoid all that — as well as those outrageous restaurant markups. If you do eat out, you can do your best to pick the healthy choice. You may also choose to take advantage of cashback credit cards that may reward you for your healthy dining out.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Zina Kumok
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Zina Kumok is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Zina here

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Facing a Medical Debt Lawsuit? Take These 10 Steps First

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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.

Bottom line

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.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Brynne Conroy
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Brynne Conroy is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brynne here