It may not come as a surprise that many Americans are besieged by medical bills, especially as thepandemic continues. Perhaps more telling is that this is usually for debt they have already paid or don’t owe.
In a new report, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that people’s most common debt collection complaints in the past year had to do with efforts to collect an account they said didn’t belong to them.
“In medical debt collection claims, this issue accounts for nearly half of claims, and more importantly, the volume of claims on this topic is increasing,” the federal agency said, noting that these accounts often end up on people’s credit reports and force them into a bureaucratic hamster wheel to clean their financial record.
Between 2018 and 2021, public complaints about attempts to collect medical bills that consumers said they shouldn’t have jumped 31%, the CFPB found. About 1 in 5 American families carries health-related debt, according to federal data. Medical bills are the most commonly reported item on consumer credit reports, according to regulators.
“People also report learning of an outstanding medical bill only after experiencing a drop in their credit score and being told that just paying the bill would remove the negative charges information from their credit report,” the CFPB added.
The CFPB said that in 2021, it sent over 750,000 complaints to around 3,400 companies for review. Among other agency findings:
- The average medical debt in the US is $310.
- In 2021, 15% of debt collection complaints were about attempts to collect a medical bill.
- Consumers who receive billing notices for a medical bill often report being unfamiliar with the provider listed.
- Consumers also report that billing notices often contain large amounts of personal medical information.
- Many Americans say they pay medical bills to avoid adverse financial and privacy consequences — even if they feel the debt is not valid.
- Communities with more minority or low-income individuals, veterans and young adults are more likely to have medical bills reported on their credit reports.
“Many Americans feel forced to pay medical bills they have paid or never should,” CFPB Director Rohit Chopra said in a statement. “The credit reporting system should not be used as a weapon to coerce patients into paying medical bills they do not owe.”
In March, major credit-rating companies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion said they planned to eliminate most medical debt from consumers’ credit reports starting this summer.
Last year, Congress sought to address the issue of trackside medical bills.that protects people with health insurance from being charged for receiving emergency medical care outside an insurer’s network.
Under the law, patients are still responsible for any deductibles and co-payments they would normally have to pay under their plan, but they can only be charged at the plan’s network rate.