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Absurd Medical Bill: Pay or Ignore?

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The pinky finger was sprained and pointing backwards. Now Blake faced that modern American dilemma: Incur the expense of going to a hospital emergency room, or endure the pain?

He couldn’t pop the pinky back into place, so Blake went to La Palma Intercommunity Hospital in Orange County, California.

“Big Mistake,” Credit.com reader using the screen name “Blake” wrote in response to our story about medical billing myths.

An emergency room doctor took three X-rays, pulled the finger back into alignment, and took another three X-rays “to be sure everything is ok,” Blake writes.

Everything was fine, except that now Blake is stuck with a bill for $1,936.

“This is insanity at its finest,” writes Blake, who feels the doctor and hospital “treat people like personal piggy banks.”

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Check Your Credit For FreeNow Blake feels he faces another choice: Pay a bill he believes is outrageous, or just ignore it. He knows that failing to pay the bill will wreck his credit score. On the other had, Blake is 22 years old, lives with his parents, and will be studying for his college degree for another three and a half years, during which time he won’t have much use for credit anyway.

“(S)o I’m wondering is it even worth slaving away to pay off these absurd bills?” he writes.

Yes, it definitely is worth it, says Barry Paperno, Credit.com’s credit scoring expert. The obvious reason why? “It’s trashing his credit,” Paperno says.

And that damage will last long after Blake has graduated. From what Blake says, it’s unclear whether the bill already has gone to collections, or if it simply has been marked “delinquent” by the hospital. That’s important because once the account is turned over to collections, his credit reports will show a collection account, which is very negative. Worse, it will be seven and a half years from the date the account first became delinquent before it drops from Blake’s credit report.

[Related Article: Four Medical Bill Myths That Can Cost You Dearly]

And then there’s the possibility that the collections agent sues Blake for payment. If that happens and Blake loses, the judgment against him becomes a separate negative hit on his credit, which itself will linger for another seven and a half years, Paperno explains.

Which means that Blake’s sprained pinky could cost him damaged credit and higher interest payments for the better part of a decade.

“The point is he needs to resolve it,” Paperno says. “He can’t just ignore it because it will wreck his credit, and they won’t go away.”

Here are some steps that Blake, and others facing a similar dilemma, can follow to make the most of an admittedly bad situation.

1) Suck it up. We make the best decisions we can, Paperno says, and those sometimes those decisions come back to haunt us. The best thing we can do is accept the consequences and move on. “Life sucks sometimes,” says Paperno.

2) Deal with it ASAP. From what Blake says, there’s a chance that his hospital bill hasn’t landed in collections yet. That means he still has bargaining power to get the bill reduced and avoid hurting his credit. He should call the hospital and the doctor’s practice as soon as he can. “I would really impress on him the urgency” of the situation, Paperno says. “He should consider himself lucky that it’s not on his credit report, and do anything he can to resolve it.”

3) Get the Documents. The first thing Blake should do is request his medical records from the hospital and his doctor. Scanning the billing codes closely, he might turn up mistakes, says Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com’s consumer finance expert.

4) Negotiate. With medical records in hand, Blake is in a better position to request a break. Since he’s a student, maybe his income is low enough to qualify for programs by the hospital or his state’s government that reduce medical bills. Or maybe he can get on a payment plan to avoid a lump-sum hit.

5) The Last Resort. Blake has a better chance of success if he deals with the bill before it goes to collections. But if he misses that cut-off, he may still be able to negotiate with the collections company. Before he pays them, he should offer to pay the bill only if they agree to remove the collections item from his credit report. This tactic may not work, Paperno says, but it’s worth a try.

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Image: Eric Skiff, via Flickr

This article was updated July 25, 2012 to clarify how long a delinquent account remains on a credit report.

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