My unpaid medical bill was sent to a collection agency

A guide to help you navigate dealing with medical debt

How to deal with medical debt collection and its impact on your credit

Bill Torange via biz free photobank | CC-BY-4.0
Quỳnh Chi Nguyễn

Associate Director, Community Catalyst, Center for Community Engagement in Health Innovation

What happens if I don’t pay my medical bill?

If you don’t pay your medical bill, the provider can sue you for payment or sell your debt to a collection company. If you fail to pay your bills, it can also hurt your credit score. However, some states have laws that prohibit health care providers from using certain collection practices against patients to collect unpaid medical bills. 

People with a low credit score can have difficulty renting an apartment, or buying a car or house. In some cases, it can even keep you from getting a job. 

If you have done everything you can to lower your medical bills (see Guide 4), you should seek out  trustworthy debt counseling to help you sort out your debt issues. Be wary of scams. You can also use Dollar For’s debt forgiveness tool to see if you can qualify to get a medical bill reduced, or eliminate it entirely. 

A note of caution about credit cards
If you charge your medical bills to your credit card, it will be tagged as a credit card debt. As a result, you will lose any protections you may have from collecting on medical bills. Try to avoid this!

Dive deeper
Learn more about existing medical debt protection laws in your state. You may also reach out to a legal aid organization in your area for assistance.

If you feel your rights are being violated, seek help from the Consumer Financial Protection Board:

What should I do if a debt collector contacts me about an unpaid medical bill?

Debt collectors are allowed to contact you to collect on the bills you owe and are allowed to sue you to recover the money. If they win the lawsuit, they can garnish your wages (taking some of your paycheck every pay period until the debt is paid) or put a lien on your home.

But debt collectors must follow certain rules. For example, they must verify that the debt belongs to you. And if you are disputing an illegal surprise medical bill, they cannot ask you to pay until your dispute is finalized. They are limited in how often they can contact you. Know more about your rights against debt collectors.

What to ask debt collectors

Debt collectors cannot harass you to pay a debt that is not yours. Ask debt collectors to give you details about exactly what bill is being collected — including the name of the business that says you owe them money and the amount that you owe. Be careful of debt collection scams.

If you believe you received an illegal surprise medical bill for out-of-network services, contact the No Surprises Help Desk online or call 1-800-985-3059 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET).

How does medical debt impact my credit score?

Owed medical debt can be reported to credit bureaus one year after you first miss a payment. Medical debt can lower your credit score, which can hurt your ability to get loans. Unpaid medical debt stays on your credit report for seven years. 

In 2022, a voluntary policy was announced by the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to prevent some medical debt from being listed on your credit report and factored into your credit score:

  • Paid medical bills should no longer be included on credit reports.
  • Unpaid medical bills cannot be listed until the bill has not been paid for at least 12 months.
  • Medical bills for $500 or less should no longer be included on credit reports.

If your credit report contains any these forms of medical debt, follow these instructions to dispute any errors.  

How can I check my credit report?

Request a free copy of your credit report from or by calling 1-877-322-8228. You are allowed to request a free report from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) once per year. 

Look closely at your report to make sure the information is correct. Medical debt will generally appear in one of two places:

  • Check the “Account Information” or “Collections” section of the report.
  • Check the section that “flags” new debt.

The following types medical debt should not be listed on your credit report or factored into your credit score:

  • Paid medical bills.
  • Unpaid medical bills unless the bill has not been paid for at least 12 months.
  • Medical bills for $500 or less. 

If your credit report contains any these forms of medical debt, follow these instructions to dispute any errors.  

Watch out for scams
Other sites may offer a credit report, but they may ask for a fee, show you ads, or could be an outright scam to steal your personal information.

How can I improve my credit score?

It’s not easy to improve your credit score on your own. However, some non-profits can help you repair your credit score. Use a reliable source such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to find good credit counselors. As always, be wary of scams.

Can I file a complaint against a debt collection company?

It’s no If you are having trouble with a debt collector, you may wish to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Board (CFPB). The collection company has two weeks to respond to your complaint before it is made public in the CFPB’s database.

Filing a complaint with the CFPB helps in two ways:

  1. It may lead to a swift solution. Collection companies don’t want public complaints on file with the government, so they have a greater incentive to work with you to solve your complaint.
  2. It builds up a record of the type of abuse and the specific companies prone to behave badly. This helps the government know how to better help and protect people against these practices and businesses.

Patricia Kelmar

Senior Director, Health Care Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Patricia directs the health care campaign work for U.S. PIRG and provides support to our state offices for state-based health initiatives. Her prior roles include senior director of health policy with the National Consumers League, senior policy advisor at NJ Health Care Quality Institute, and consumer advocate at NJPIRG. She serves on the board of the Patient and Caregiver Engagement Advisory Group for the National Quality Forum. Patricia enjoys walks along the Potomac and sharing her love of books with her friends and family around the world.

Quỳnh Chi Nguyễn

Associate Director, Community Catalyst, Center for Community Engagement in Health Innovation

Quỳnh Chi Nguyễn oversees two major projects on community benefits and economic stability, and hospital equity and accountability. She also supports local and state health advocacy organizations that are working to improve economic stability. Quỳnh Chi has expertise in several policy areas, including affordability, health insurance coverage, prescription drug costs, and health justice. She is similarly experienced in policy research and analysis on community sustainable development, poverty reduction, child protection, and human trafficking in Southeast Asia.

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