According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 54 million Americans — nearly 20% of the population — had difficulty paying medical bills in 2012. Center For Disease Control

Typically, if a bill has not been paid after 120 days, a physician or hospital will turn over the unpaid debt to a collector. From that point on the consumer deals directly with the agency.

In some cases, consumers are surprised by a collections notice, and are never even informed of a bill. How to stop medical bills from going to a collection agency.

According to the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based private foundation, last year an estimated 41 million people were contacted by a collection agency regarding medical bills – approximately 7 million people said their account was erroneously sent to collections.

Unfortunately, any call from a collections agency can blemish a good credit rating.

Even after the bills have been paid off, the record of the collection action can stay on a credit report for up to seven years, dragging down credit scores. An estimated 3.4 million Americans have paid-off medical debt lingering on their credit reports. Medical debt often ruins Amercans’ credit; Bad credit can stay with you long after bill is paid

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, consumers can help prevent their medical bills from being sent to collections by following some common sense advice:

Don’t avoid bills.  Pay something – even if it is just a small amount. When people receive bills they cannot pay they often go into avoidance mode.   This can backfire, causing providers who are unable to reach you to send your account to collections.

Double-check your charges. Its important to confirm that medical charges are accurate, then quickly take action to correct mistakes.

Any disputes you have with your insurer that delay payment should be explained to your provider – ask  that they not send your bill to collections until you’ve resolved the issue.

Call provider with concerns. If you never received a bill for medical services, that should be a concern. If no explanation of benefits arrives for some time following your visit, call the provider to find out what’s going on. And confirm that your provider has your correct mailing address, and that your insurer’s billing address is still current in the provider’s system.

Know your rights. If you receive notice that your account has gone into collections, confirm that the charge is legitimate.

Federal and California state law give consumers the right to request that collection agencies send verification in writing of a debt owed, and they must cease collection efforts until they’ve complied with your request.

In addition, California law requires debt collectors give you notice that your account has been assigned to collections and that you have 30 days to dispute it.

Be proactive. If you don’t owe the money or you’ve already paid the bill, send the collection agency an explanation in writing. Forward any receipts or copies of canceled checks you have to support your claim. How to stop medical bills from going to a collection agency

Remember, if you send the debt collector a letter – within 30 days after of receiving validation notice – stating that you don’t owe any or all of the money, or asking for verification of the debt, that collector must stop contacting you. Debt Collection

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