Americans’ credit reports contain unpaid medical debts far more than any other kind of unpaid bills, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found in a study. A “staggering” 52% of all unpaid debt entries listed on credit reports is from medical expenses, the bureau says. And some 43 million Americans — or about one in five adults — have an unpaid medical debt on their records, dragging down their credit scores.
Many of those derogatory entries on credit reports are the result of America’s confusing medical billing and insurance payment system, the CFPB says. Some 15 million Americans have only unpaid medical debt on the derogatory side of their credit reports, suggesting those consumers don’t have trouble paying other bills. Also, most unpaid medical bills are small — the median amount is $200, far lower than the median unpaid bill for credit cards or auto loans.
“Today’s study found that many consumers are affected by medical debt, that medical debt dominates collections trade lines in the credit reporting system, and that the appearance of medical debt information on credit reports can reflect the complexity, confusion, and delays that characterize medical billing and insurance reimbursement rather than the consumer’s ability or willingness to pay their debts,” said CFPB director Richard Cordray in a statement about the research. “If a credit score is supposed to be a predictor of a consumer’s likelihood of paying back a debt, these findings raise serious questions about how medical debt collections items affect a consumer’s credit score.”
The report highlights efforts already under way in the credit reporting system intended to reduce the impact that unpaid medical bills can have on a consumer’s credit score. Earlier this year, the CFPB released a report showing that consumers with unpaid-medical-debt-only credit reports paid their bills at the rate of other consumers with higher credit scores, suggesting current scoring formulas inaccurately reflected those consumers’ credit-worthiness.
In August, Fair Isaac, keepers of the FICO credit scoring formula, said it was changing its formula, and the penalty for unpaid medical debt would be reduced. It will take time for lenders to adopt the new formula, however.
This study further found that unpaid-medical-debt-only consumers owe less, have more available credit which they could use to repay their debt, and are more reliable payers than consumers with non-medical collections tradelines. The problem, the report suggests, is that many consumers don’t know who to pay, or what they owe, after medical procedures.
“Lack of price transparency and the complex system of insurance coverage and cost sharing means many consumers, including those who have health coverage, receive medical bills that are a source of confusion,” it says.
The report also highlights the hundreds of firms that might ultimately report a patient as late on a medical bill. Their “indirect affiliation with the debt introduces potential sources of error in collections reporting,” the CFPB said.
Medical debts also draw a larger percentage of disputes than other kinds of debt, the CFPB said.
As part of a larger initiative, the CFPB announced Thursday that it was now requiring large credit reporting agencies to provide regular reports about the accuracy of their data, including new details on creditors who attract the most disputes.
“These reports will specify the number of times consumers dispute information on their credit reports during that period,” the CFPB said. “It will also list furnishers with the most disputes, industries with the most disputes, and furnishers with particularly high dispute rates relative to their peers. We will also see how those disputes get resolved.”
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Image: Christian Delbert