Many people who have medical debt on their credit reports will soon receive assistance.
Beginning Friday, the three major credit reporting companies in the United States will no longer include paid medical debt on the reports used by banks, potential landlords, and others to assess creditworthiness. In addition, instead of six months, the companies will now give people a year to resolve delinquent medical debt that has been sent to collections before reporting it.
Next year, the companies will also stop counting unpaid medical debt of less than $500.
According to the companies, these actions will wipe out nearly 70% of the medical debt listed on consumer credit reports.
Patient advocates call that a huge advance. However, they question whether medical debt should be included on credit reports at all, given that many people regard it as a poor indicator of someone’s ability to repay a loan or rent.
“These aren’t people who bought shoes they couldn’t afford,” Community Service Society of New York’s Amanda Dunker said. “They went to see a doctor because they were sick or injured.”
Brooke Davis had about $1,300 in medical debt from a breast cancer scare that had been on her credit report for years.
The 48-year-old McDonough, Georgia, resident said it made renting an apartment difficult, and she needed a co-signer for a car loan.
“If you have bad credit, you can’t get anything, not even a credit card,” she explained.
Davis’ debt was discharged by the non-profit RIP Medical Debt last fall. However, additional health issues and the loss of a job have pushed Davis further into debt. She is currently suffering from a swollen knee and is unable to see her doctor.
According to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, mortgages and credit cards are better predictors of debt repayment than medical bills.
The agency, which monitors banks, lenders, and other financial institutions, has noted that when people seek care, they often don’t have time to shop around for the best price and may have little control over the course of a serious illness.
Medical billing mistakes can appear on credit reports. And patients aren’t always sure how much they owe or whether an insurer will ever pay it.
The agency estimated earlier this year that medical bills account for 58 percent of debt in collections and on credit reports, and that past-due medical debt is more common among Black and Hispanic people.
The bureau is investigating whether or not unpaid medical bills should be included on credit reports.
The bureau’s assistant director, John McNamara, declined to speculate on when the agency might make a decision. After hearing from all sides of the issue, it could propose a rule that would put an end to the practice.
Medical debt is also being considered by credit reporting companies, according to Justin Hakes, vice president of the Consumer Data Industry Association.
Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, the three national credit reporting agencies, announced the medical debt changes in March, after the bureau stated that it would hold those companies accountable for the accuracy of their reports.
According to patient advocates, the changes will benefit a large number of people.
According to Chi Chi Wu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, the delay in reporting delinquent debt will give patients time to figure out how to resolve a bill.
The majority of the medical debt that appeared on Melina Oien’s credit report several years ago was for bills under $500. The Tacoma, Washington, resident claimed she was living in Hawaii, where her ex-husband was stationed for the military. They were receiving treatment for a daughter who had a rare condition that affected her metabolism.
A military severance package eventually helped them pay off their medical debt a few years ago. Oien claims that this alone increased her credit score by about 70 points.
Prior to that, they had to deal with higher interest rates on any loans they took out, and they could only get a mortgage after her sister gave them money to pay off debt.