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What to Know About Covering Medical Expenses with a Credit Card

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Many Americans have medical debt, and the Coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse.

Charging medical expenses to a credit card may seem like a good solution, but it could end up costing you a lot more in interest and fees. Before you pull out your credit card at the doctor's office, make sure you've considered the potential consequences and explored other options.

Alternatives to Using Credit for Medical Bills

Before charging any expense to a credit card, it's a good idea to figure out what you're able to pay today — in cash or by check.

When it comes to medical services, you should also review your bills carefully to be sure you're being charged the correct amount. If the hospital or healthcare provider didn't itemize the treatments and other services you received, call and ask for a revised bill that includes that level of detail.

If you're concerned about your ability to pay, you can try to negotiate with the doctor's office or hospital. Explain your financial situation and ask if the balance can be reduced. If there's an amount you're able to pay up front without using credit, offer to pay it. This may give you leeway with the rest of the balance.

Many hospitals and other healthcare providers offer interest-free payment plans or other financial assistance programs that can either help you spread your debt over a longer, more manageable period of time or reduce the total amount you owe. Talk to the provider's billing department to understand your options. You'll likely have to fill out an application explaining your employment, income, assets, savings and other information. However, if you're eligible for one of these programs, you could lower your bill and avoid paying for it with a high-interest credit card.

You may also want to find out if your employer offers any sort of help financing medical debt or deductibles. Additionally, there may be a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) or other type of employee benefit that can help you pay your debt without resorting to a credit card.

Medical Debt and Your Credit Scores

Even after trying these strategies, you may still find that you can't pay your medical bill up front. In this case, it's important to understand the potential impact that using credit to pay your medical bills may have on your credit scores.

Most hospitals and other healthcare providers don't report your payment history to the three nationwide consumer reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. That means medical debt generally won't appear on your credit reports or affect your credit scores.

However if you fail to pay your bill, your provider may turn your account over to an in-house or third-party collection agency after a certain amount of time. The collection agency may report your debt to the nationwide credit bureaus after a 180-day waiting period, during which you have an opportunity to pay down your debt or negotiate a payment plan. If that doesn't happen, however, the debt is reported as being in collections on your credit reports and will remain there for up to seven years—even if the debt is eventually paid in full.

Paying Medical Debt with Credit vs. Having It Go to Collections

If you've exhausted all other options and you are forced to choose between using credit to pay a medical bill or having that debt go to collections, it's better to use your credit card. Try to make it a priority to pay off the debt as soon as possible to minimize interest charges.

No matter what strategy you choose when tackling medical debt, you should always keep a close eye on your credit reports. You can get free access to multiple Equifax credit reports each year if you create a myEquifax account at my.equifax.com.

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