Consumer Reports: Fighting back against medical debt

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — If you’ve ever been contacted by a collection agency about medical debt, you’re not alone.

Over 40 million people have sent unpaid medical bills to collection agencies, and nearly half of those bills contain at least one error, so don’t pay them automatically. Consumer Reports says you need to do some research and know how to fight back if necessary.

Earlier this summer, Lauren MacNeill received a strange bill from a collection agency saying she owed $71 to an emergency center she never visited.

“I think they just made a mistake. I’ve never been to this emergency room,” she said.

“Lauren’s case is a textbook example of why you should almost always hit pause when you’re being contacted by a debt collector about a medical bill,” said Lisa Gill of Consumer Reports.

If you’re contacted by a debt collector about a medical bill you think is wrong, never pay it right away. Instead, CR says to take the following steps.

Gather as much information as possible, including the name of the collection agency, the person you are speaking to, their phone number, address, email address, and as much information about the bill as possible.

“There are a lot of scams out there, so this can put off any bogus debt collector,” Gil said.

Next, ask the debt collector to send you an acknowledgment of the debt. You can expect to receive information about the debt in the mail within approximately five days of your request.

If there is an error in the acknowledgment letter, object in writing by email or registered mail within 30 days, otherwise the collection agency will assume the claim is valid.

Gill helps MacNeil with her situation.

“We ended up sending Lauren a certified letter documenting the alleged errors and stating that she was under no obligation to pay the bill. She still hasn’t heard anything, so she’s not obligated to pay the debt.”

“When I told my son this whole story and he said, ‘All this for only $71?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but you can imagine if it was thousands of dollars,'” MacNeil said.

Another tip: There may be statutes of limitations on how long a claim can be collected. Do not pay any part of the debt until you are sure you still owe it.

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