If you are among the millions of Americans plagued by unpaid medical bills, here is what you need to know about how those unpaid bills can affect you, and about the statute of limitations on creditors’ ability to take you to court.
The Epidemic of Unpaid Medical Bills
MSN reported earlier this year that about 30 million Americans were contacted by bill collection agencies in 2010 over unpaid medical bills.
Many more people owe money to medical providers that have not yet contacted collection companies, so you can surmise the total number of Americans with unpaid medical bills is significantly higher than 30 million.
Does this mean there are 30 million-plus deadbeat Americans who refuse to pay for their hospital and medical services?
Not at all. Here are two reasons many well-intentioned people fall behind in paying medical bills:
- They didn’t know about them. Americans across the country know too well about how a single visit to the doctor or a single surgery can result in multiple bills. With many hospitals engaging contracted medical providers to perform services for patients, this means that a patient undergoing a procedure at a hospital may receive bills from the hospital itself, the surgeon contracted to perform the procedure, the anesthesiologist, and more.Many Americans return from the hospital without being altogether sure what bills to expect. Plenty of mistakes are made as a result. Patients sometimes receive bills months after leaving the hospital, and are unsure whether those bills are correct. Some bills look almost identical to others, so patients may assume they’ve already paid. And there are even times a patient knows absolutely nothing about a certain bill until getting a letter out of the blue from a collection agency.
- They expected the insurance company to pay. Insurance companies make mistakes, too, and so do patients. For this reason, it is best to follow up with your insurance company in order to make sure you won’t be getting any bills for medical care your insurance ought to cover. Never make assumptions about what is covered. Always get confirmation from your insurance provider about what your insurance will pay before getting treatment, and always follow up afterwards to ensure you won’t be billed in error.
If you are nearing Medicare eligibility, you need to be aware that many people receive unexpected bills for hospital and medical care they believed Medicare would cover. Often, Medicare denials and unexpected bills are the result of doctor failure to provide all required information to Medicare regarding a particular case. Some doctors occasionally forget to establish to Medicare or to private companies administering Medicare plans that certain medical services are medically-necessary. In such cases, patients sometimes get billed in error, are there are instances where such errors never get corrected.
People who are—or who soon will be—eligible for Medicare should also be well aware that Medicare supplement insurance, by eliminating costs they normally would have to pay out-of-pocket for Medicare-covered services, also helps eliminate personal medical bills and the likelihood of accumulating the sort of medical debt that gets so many Americans into trouble.
How Can Unpaid Medical Bills Affect Me?
Contrary to what many people think, American law views medical debt as it views other types of personal debt. This means no one should expect leniency in a court of law simply because his or her debts are medical-related.
This means that a medical debt of $20,000 or $40,000 is regarded in much the same way as a debt of almost any other kind of the same amount.
As a result, medical debt can affect credit, making it more difficult to get a new job, find an apartment, buy or refinance a home, and so on, just as a large personal debt might do.
It is important to monitor your medical accounts or debts carefully. As MSN reports, “A single collection account—even for a $15 co-pay—can cause your [credit] score to plummet.”
Statute of Limitations on Medical Debt
Debtors are protected in every US state by a statute of limitations on creditors’ ability to take them to court to collect payments. This statute of limitations applies to people with unpaid medical bills as well as those who have defaulted on credit card and other payments.
The counting-down period begins when an account goes into arrears and no payments are made afterwards. If an account goes into arrears but partial or occasional payments are made afterwards, the counting-down period does not begin until payments are completely stopped.
Currently, the statute of limitations on medical debt in the United States ranges from three to ten years (and possibly longer in some cases in Kentucky), depending on the state. To find out the statute of limitations in your state, visit Bankrate.com’s convenient chart showing Statutes of limitations for each state.
Although collectors cannot sue a patient after the statue has run out, medical providers or bill collectors are permitted to continue telephoning, sending reminders, and so on, though not in a harassing manner.
It is important to remember that if you make any type of payment or acknowledge a debt after the statute of limitations has run out, you are in danger of being held accountable for the entire amount owing. If you want to make good on a medical debt even after the statute has expired, it is advisable to speak to a good lawyer before proceeding so that you will be protected.
Do you have advice for people with unpaid medical bills? If so, please leave a comment!
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