Medical Debt

How to Stop Surprise Medical Bills and Helping With Debt

A new decision from the credit reporting agencies combined with a federal law could help millions of Americans.

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No one likes surprises, especially when it’s a medical bill totaling hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Unsuspecting consumers have complained about them for years, and now there’s a federal law that should help.

But, as Consumer Reports explains, there are some important exceptions that you need to know about.

Jan. 1 not only ushered in a new year, it also brought the No Surprises Act, which addresses a problem millions of people covered by private health insurance face every year: surprise medical bills. Then last week, the three credit reporting agencies announced that paid medical debt that was sent to collections would no longer affect consumers' ratings.

Since 2017, many Californians were already covered under state laws, but there were still several loopholes that the No Surprises Act will close.

For most people, the new law means they’ll no longer receive an unexpected medical bill after being treated by a doctor or going to a medical facility they didn’t choose in the first place.

That’s right: No more surprise bills from emergency room doctors or other out-of-network hospital providers like anesthesiologists and radiologists when you get care at an in-network facility.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates the No Surprises Act will apply to as many as 10 million surprise medical bills every year.

While all of this sounds great, the law still has some glaring holes. Take urgent care facilities: Visits are covered only if the facility is licensed as an emergency service provider. But how do you know that? It’s best if you prepare ahead of time and call several urgent care facilities in your area to ask if they’re licensed to provide emergency medical services.

And then there are lab tests at your regular doctor’s office. Be sure they use a lab that’s in-network. Again, do your homework beforehand to avoid surprises.

Because the law is new, hospitals and providers are still adjusting to the new rules, which means they could accidentally send you a medical bill.

If that bill went unpaid, it would eventually be sent to collections. Matt Schulz of Lending Tree said that, once that happened, even if you paid the bill, it would negatively impact your credit report for years.

“There are few things in life more expensive than crummy credit,” Schulz said. “It’s really good that the credit bureaus are adjusting their credit reports and reporting to that reality.”

As of July 1, Equifax, Experian and Transunion will no longer count that paid medical debt in their credit reports. That could remove as much as 70% of the medical debt from peoples’ credit history.

“You could end up seeing a really significant credit score increase,” Schulz said. “That’s really good news for a lot of people.”

If you do get an unexpected bill, contact your insurance company to see what’s going on. And be prepared to call your provider, because it might have to resubmit your claim for full coverage. If that doesn’t work, you can file a federal complaint online at CMS.gov.

If you need further help with a surprise medical bill, contact the Patient Advocate Foundation, which may be able to help you deal with unaffordable medical bills.

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