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Unpaid medical bills can drag down credit

SFGate, 3/5/12

In this photo taken Feb. 10, 2012, Nathen and Melissa Cobb pose for a photo with their two children Joshua, 3, and Savannah, 7 months, at their home in Riverton, Ill. The Cobbs tried to refinance their home last year and didn't qualify for the loan because of medical bills that had been sent to a collection agency. They were surprised because the bills had been paid. They now know that the collection action can stay on their credit report for seven years. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Here's an added challenge if you're struggling to pay a medical bill: Your credit can be wrecked if the doctor or hospital kicks your unpaid bill to a collection agency.

A growing number of Americans are discovering this unexpected land mine when they refinance or take out a loan. The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that sponsors health care research, estimates that 22 million Americans were contacted by collection agencies for unpaid medical bills in 2005. That increased to 30 million Americans in 2010.

People with wrecked credit scores include those who were just trying to resolve a dispute with their insurance company. It includes people owing less than $250. And even after the bill is paid, the record of the collection action can stay on a credit report for up to seven years.

That can drag down a credit score and drive up the cost of financing a home.

Mike and Laura Park thought their credit record was spotless. The Texas couple wanted to take advantage of low interest rates, so they put their house on the market and talked to a lender about a mortgage on a bigger home in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

Their credit report contained a shocker: A $200 medical bill had been sent to a collection agency. Although since paid, it still lowered their credit scores by about 100 points, and it means they'll have to pay a discount point to get the best interest rate. Cost to them: $2,500.

An estimated 3.4 million Americans have paid-off medical debt lingering on their credit reports, according to the Access Project, a research group funded by health care foundations and advocates of tougher laws on medical debt collectors.

Congress is considering legislation - the Medical Debt Responsibility Act - that would require credit agencies to delete paid-off medical debt from credit reports within 45 days. The bill has bipartisan support in the House, said co-sponsor Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C. Shuler said the health care industry sends delinquent bills to debt collectors quicker than any other industry.


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