Credit bureaus ease medical debt pain for a few

Too many Americans have bad credit because of unpaid medical bills. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, despite two reforms in how those bills will be reported to the credit bureaus.

Starting Sept. 15:

—There will be a 180-day waiting period before unpaid medical debts can show up on people’s credit reports.

—Medical collections will be deleted from credit reports if they’re paid by health insurers.

Credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion agreed to the new standards as part of two settlements with state attorneys general in 2015. The changes in medical debt reporting were designed to help people whose bills fell through the cracks between their health care providers and their insurance companies, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.

In my latest for the Associated Press, find out who these changes are expected to help.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

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Friday’s need-to-know money news

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Monday’s need-to-know money news

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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

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Credit scores “overly penalized” for medical bills, regulator says

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIf you have a collection account on your credit reports, chances are pretty good it’s from a medical bill. And chances are also good that the collection is having an outsized impact on your credit scores.

Today the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a study saying credit scores unfairly penalized people with medical collections. Those scores underestimated the creditworthiness of such people by 16 to 22 points, according the bureau’s review of 5 million people’s credit reports.

The byzantine way medical care is bought and paid for in the U.S. contributes to the problem. Even if you’re insured, it’s easy for a medical bill to slip through the cracks.

“Sometimes insurance does not cover everything.  Sometimes [people] do not know what they owe because of how complicated the billing process can be,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray noted in a prepared statement.  “Other times they may not even know they owe anything, thinking that their insurance will cover the bill.  Sometimes the debt is caused by billing issues with medical providers or insurers.  Complaints to the Bureau indicate that many consumers do not even know they have a medical debt in collections until they get a call from a debt collector or they discover the debt on their credit report.”

FICO, creators of the leading credit score, have already tweaked the formula to ignore collections under $100. The next version of the score, FICO 9, will use “a more nuanced approach to assessing consumer collection data,” promised spokesman Anthony Sprauve. With this formula, scheduled to be released later this year, “medical collections will have a smaller impact than non-medical collections.”

The problem, as credit industry insiders will tell you, is that most lenders continue to use older versions of the FICO formula that don’t have these upgrades. So even though FICO concedes the point that medical bills aren’t as predictive as other types of collections, they can still unfairly wallop your scores.

 

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

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How to fight a medical collection

Dear Liz: My credit score just dropped more than 100 points within 45 days. The only thing I can think of that might have caused it is a $46 medical bill that was paid by my flexible spending account. I have a confirmation that the bill was paid, but for some reason the bill went to a collection agency. How do I get my credit score back to 828? I just recently moved and need a good credit rating for numerous reasons, especially purchasing a home and a new car. I was just turned down for a credit card from the bank that holds my mortgage. I tried dealing with the original medical office that received my payment, but they said I have to talk to the collection agency.

Answer: Check first to see if the collection account is actually on your credit reports. Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the only site that offers you free, federally mandated annual access to your credit files at the three major credit bureaus. Other sites may advertise “free” credit reports, but they often come with strings attached such as requirements that you sign up for credit monitoring. Sites that offer free scores typically aren’t providing the FICO scores that most lenders use.

If the collection account isn’t on your reports, something else may have caused the score plunge. Consider buying at least one of your FICO scores from MyFico.com, which will give you an explanation of why your score isn’t higher.

If you find the collection account on your records, however, you need to go back to the medical billing office and insist that someone fix this, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert for Credit.com.

“The bill did not magically turn up in collections,” Detweiler said. “Someone made a mistake and since it is their office that was the source of the mistake, they need to fix it.”

Detweiler recommends sending a certified letter explaining that the office has damaged your credit reports and that if someone doesn’t fix the mistake immediately, you will be talking to an attorney about a credit damage lawsuit.

“If the medical office placed it for collections, they can pull it back from collections,” Detweiler said. “It sounds like they are being lazy by refusing to help.”

If the office balks for any reason, you can follow up with an attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at http://www.naca.net). You also can send a certified letter to the collection agency explaining the mistake and insisting it be removed from your credit reports.

You should mention in the letter that you’re trying to get a mortgage and a car loan and that if you’re unsuccessful because of this error, you’ll be talking with a consumer law attorney. It would be helpful to include proof of the mistake, Detweiler said. In many cases, the collection agency will simply delete the erroneous information rather than face getting sued.

“They may not want to bother with it since it’s such a small amount and not worth risking a lawsuit over,” Detweiler said.

Botched remodel holding up refinancing

Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.

A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.

My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?

Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.

First, though, make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org). A credit card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.

The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.

If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.