How to handle medical bills on credit reports

A stressed woman works on a laptopImage: A stressed woman works on a laptop

In a Nutshell

Medical bills generally don’t appear on credit reports until they’ve gone unpaid for at least 180 days. But once an unpaid medical bill goes to collection, the collection account can appear on your credit reports — and stay there for up to seven years, even if you eventually pay.
Editorial Note: Intuit Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our third-party advertisers don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Information about financial products not offered on Credit Karma is collected independently. Our content is accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

When medical bills appear on your credit reports, it’s generally because they’ve gone unpaid for quite a while. Negative information, like collection actions, can significantly affect your credit scores.

The best way to protect your credit scores from potential negative consequences of medical bills is to pay the bills on time. But if you’re facing a medical bill you can’t afford, it’s worth double-checking with your insurance company to see if it’ll cover it. If the insurance company won’t budge, or if you’re uninsured, you can ask the healthcare provider about setting up a payment plan. This could help you avoid having the bill go to collections — which can negatively affect your credit scores.

Do medical bills appear on credit reports?

Medical bills usually only show up on your credit reports if they’re sent to collections.

As long as you pay your doctor’s bill or hospital bill on time, it shouldn’t be reported to the credit bureaus. But if you miss the due date, and you’re significantly late, the medical office might turn your debt over to a collections agency.

Experian, one of the three major consumer credit bureaus, notes that while each healthcare provider has its own practices, it’s typical for providers to wait 90 days before sending medical debt to collections. Some might even wait 180 days.

Regardless of when your unpaid bills are turned over to a collections agency, the three major consumer credit bureaus give you a six-month grace period. That means unpaid medical bills won’t show up in your credit history until you’re at least 180 days late. So, theoretically, even after your past-due medical bills are sent to collections, with the 180-day rule you might be able to pay them before they show up on your credit reports.

How do medical collections affect credit scores?

Multiple factors are commonly used in calculating credit scores, including credit card utilization, payment history and age of credit history.

Your payment history is the most important factor that goes into determining your credit scores. So just like any other collection account that shows up on your credit reports, medical collection accounts can have a negative impact on your credit scores if they go unaddressed.

But it’s possible for a medical collection to affect your credit scores differently than other types of collections. Some scoring models give less weight to outstanding medical debts than other types of collection accounts. And some (but not all) credit-scoring models will disregard unpaid medical bills if you originally owed less than $100.

How can I get medical bills off my credit report?

Medical collections can stay on your credit reports for up to seven years from the date they become delinquent (this happens 180 days after they’re first due).

It’s important to understand that once an unpaid debt shows up on your credit report, you may not be able to get it removed simply by paying off the debt collector.

But there are a couple of other ways you might be able to get medical bills off your credit reports.

  1. Ask your health insurance company to pay it. If you pay the debt collection agency, a medical bill could stay on your reports for seven years. But if your insurance provider pays the collection agency, the credit bureaus may remove it from your credit reports. So if you have reason to believe your insurance company should’ve paid a medical bill that slipped through the cracks, you can follow up and ask it to reconsider your insurance claims.
  2. You can dispute the medical bill. Check to make sure the bill is accurate. If you believe it was placed on your credit reports by mistake, or because of fraud, you can challenge it.

Do medical bills in collections ever go away?

After seven years, medical collections will drop off your credit reports, even if you haven’t paid them off.

But your credit reports may not be your only concern.

In addition to reporting your past-due medical bill to the credit bureaus, the collections agency could also take you to court to recover the money you owe. They usually have between three and six years before the statute of limitations (the time limit for taking legal action) expires, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If you can’t afford to repay your medical expenses, you could file for bankruptcy protection. But this should be a last resort.

Next steps: How can I keep medical collections from ever appearing on my credit report?

These tips could help you keep medical bills off your consumer credit reports.

  1. Know what your health insurance will and won’t cover. If you’re not sure whether a particular medical procedure will be covered, or how much your insurance company will pay, give it a call before your appointment and ask how much you’ll be responsible for paying out of pocket. That way there won’t be any surprises.
  2. Try negotiating a hefty medical bill. If you don’t have insurance at all, or your insurance won’t cover a particular procedure, it may be worth trying to negotiate cost or a payment arrangement before you undergo treatment. Your medical service provider may charge lower rates for people who are paying privately.
  3. Stay on top of your due dates. It might help to set a calendar reminder or automate payments so you don’t lose track of when your bills are due.
  4. Request a payment plan. If you can’t afford to pay your medical bills all at once, ask the hospital or medical provider if it offers payment plans to give you a longer period of time to pay.
  5. Check your credit reports for suspicious behavior. If you notice a bill for a doctor’s appointment or hospital visit you never made, you can dispute the charges and may be able to get them removed from your credit reports.

About the author: Tim Devaney is a personal finance writer and credit card expert at Credit Karma. He’s a longtime journalist who prides himself on being a good storyteller who can explain complex information in an easily digestible wa… Read more.