GET HELP: What to do if your hospital sues you for medical debt
For its “Medical Debt Lawsuits” project, KXAN collaborated with ClearHealthCosts, a national journalism group focused on transparency in the healthcare marketplace. In our research and interviews, two of the main questions we heard were: what do I do if I have been sued by my hospital or doctor, and what should I do if I can’t pay my medical bill?
We compiled a list of tips and resources to help answer those questions for you below.
If you’ve been sued
- Know your rights. If you are the subject of a default judgment in a Texas court – or any other kind of judgment related to a medical bill – the creditor may not be able to take your home, your car or many forms of income including alimony, child support, Social Security, disability payments and others. Find details on your debt collection rights in this toolkit from Texas Appleseed, a public interest justice center. Nationwide, this National Consumer Law Center report shows state-by-state what can and cannot be confiscated in a debt collection case.
- Don’t give in to scare tactics. Collection activities are governed by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The law limits what tactics may be used, when calls may be made and so on. State laws like the Texas Debt Collection Act are modeled from the federal measure but have other specific provisions.
- Guard your credit. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act governs how debt collection is reported in credit reports. You can also file a complaint with the Texas Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner or the Texas Attorney General. If a creditor is putting multiple negative reports on your record, they may be skirting the law.
- Do your research. The National Consumer Law Center collects consumer debt advice and expert tips, including articles about medical debt. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has consumer tools on debt protection.
- Get legal help. Several Texas organizations offer services and advice to people with medical and other bills in collection. They include:
- Texas RioGrande Legal Aid – (956) 447-4800
- Lone Star Legal Aid – 1-800-733-8394
- Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas – 1-888-529-5277
- Texas Appleseed – (512) 473-2800
If you can’t pay your bill
- Understand state law. Texas has some protections against surprise medical billing. The Texas Department of Insurance provides details.
- Understand federal law. A new federal measure is designed to protect people against surprise medical bills. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has compiled tips on surprise billing patient protections.
- Get an itemization. Ask the hospital or other provider for a detailed bill to understand your charges.
- Don’t pay immediately. Debt experts explain there are often mistakes in bills. Do research first to see if the bill has been mis-processed, improperly denied, or if you qualify for financial aid.
- Don’t ignore the bill. Put your challenge to the charges in writing, and keep a record of that challenge. If you let it slide or object only by phone, your credit may be damaged – and the hospital or doctor may take you to court.
- Check with your insurer. This could include private or employer-based insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, TRICARE, the Veterans Administration or anyone who has responsibility for your care and makes sure your bill has been properly processed. If applicable, ask if you qualify for Medicaid, if you are not already on it.
- Ask about financial aid from the hospital or doctor. Financial aid policies differ from place to place and may be more charitable than you think. They may also be hard to find, so ask specifically, look on the website or both.
- Dollar For is a nonprofit that helps in applying for financial assistance.
- If your application for financial aid is denied, ask why – or seek advice for an appeal.
- Red flag: When you are looking for financial aid, some places will try to direct you to “financing,” which might be an application promising interest-free or low-interest credit. This can be tricky. The financing application is basically an application for consumer credit, and it might have similar terms and conditions to credit card debt – hefty interest and penalties, for example.
- Is your hospital a non-profit? Texas requires non-profit hospitals to provide financial assistance to patients with income between 21% and 200% of the federal poverty level. You can find federal poverty income guidelines here. The National Consumer Law Center has more details in its recent review of hospital financial assistance policies across the country.
KXAN’s Josh Hinkle and David Barer collaborated on this article with reporting partner Jeanne Pinder of ClearHealthCosts, who is also featured in a special episode of the investigative podcast, Catalyst. Hinkle, along with KXAN’s Arezow Doost and Richie Bowes, conducted the interviews in the crowdsourcing video gallery at the top of this article.