March 4, 2012

Medical bills can wreck credit, even when paid off

Billing mistakes, confusion over whether insurance covers a procedure and disputes between insurance companies and doctors can lead to medical bills being sent to collection agencies.

The Associated Press

CHICAGO — 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.

click image to enlarge

In this photo, Nathen and Melissa Cobb pose 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)

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.

A growing number of Americans could encounter similar landmines 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.

Surprisingly, even after the bills have been paid off, the record of the collection action can stay on a credit report for up to seven years, dragging down credit scores and driving up the cost of financing a home. 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.

Among them are Nathen and Melissa Cobb of Riverton, Ill., who tried to refinance their home last year. They didn't qualify for the loan because of $740 in medical bills that had been sent to a collection agency. The Cobbs were surprised because the bills — nearly a dozen small copayments ranging from $6 to $280 — had been paid before they tried to refinance. The collection action took their credit score from good to mediocre and is likely to mar their credit report for years.

"I'm not one of those people trying to ditch out on my bills," 34-year-old Melissa Cobb said. "I'm really frustrated."

Medical bills make up the majority of collection actions on credit reports, and most are for less than $250, according to Federal Reserve Board research.

The Parks had no idea a billing error they'd sorted out a year earlier — they never actually owed the $200 — could affect their credit. They didn't know the bill for a copayment on a PET scan Mike needed had been sent to a collection agency.

"We've prided ourselves in having impeccable credit. We worked hard to establish that," said Laura Park, a 51-year-old office manager married to a 53-year-old firefighter. They are going ahead with the home purchase while trying to fix their credit report.

"I'm very upset," Park said. "It's going to be a nightmare and who knows how long this is going to take to resolve."

Matt Ernst, a vice president at Mortgage Lenders of America in Overland Park, Kan., said medical collections frequently turn up on credit reports.

"We see a ton of them," Ernst said. They have an impact on financing, he said, but even he didn't realize how much until he learned that someone with a FICO score of 680 — which is considered good, but not excellent — will see their score drop up to 65 points because of a medical collection.

"I didn't know a medical collection would hammer it that hard," Ernst said. "Our investors require a 620 to even get a loan."

(Continued on page 2)

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