Those of us in the personal finance world have long understood that medical bills are a major driving factor behind consumer debt issues. I can’t even begin to count how many emails I’ve received from people struggling with debts or considering bankruptcy due to bills related to an injury or illness. Without health insurance, consumers can easily build up $10,000 in debt for a simple visit to the emergency room. Even with health insurance, many consumers face incredible deductibles or costs for even basic medical treatment.
A new study from Demos and the Access Project entitled "Borrowing to Stay Healthy" has revealed new data on just how much medical costs are impacting consumer credit card balances. The report found that:
- Low- and middle-income medically indebted households had higher levels of credit card debt than those without medical debt-on average 46 percent higher. ($11,623 versus $7,964).
- Twenty-nine percent of low- and middle-income households with credit card debt reported that medical expenses contributed to their current balances. Within that group, 69 percent had a major medical expense in the previous three years.
The report also goes on to discuss the issue of medical credit cards and revolving lines of credit. These services are often offered to patients as "financial assistance" by health care providers when, in fact, they usually have higher rates and fees than comparable standard financial products.
The group advises a solution that is very close to my own wishes: a requirement to differentiate medical debts from other types of debts in the credit system. I feel very strongly that new regulations should be passed to reform the way medical bills are sold to collections and included in credit reporting. Under the current system, any size of unpaid medical debt can be sold by a health care provider to a collection agency. The resulting collection record causes significant credit score damage for 7 years; damage that doesn’t end when the consumer pays off the debt.
It doesn’t make sense that a consumer’s credit score would drop dramatically because they are unable to repay exorbitant bills for something like cancer treatment. Struggling to repay unavoidable medical bills is a very different situation in my mind than being unable to repay bills for electronics and other avoidable expenses. And, although creditors and lenders would argue against it, I don’t think medical collection accounts are a fair or accurate item to use in credit scoring calculations.
Have you recently faced an expensive medical bill? Did you use credit card or other financial products to manage the debt? Share your feedback and stories in the comments section below.