Medical costs are a serious issue in the United States. The average U.S. consumer spends more than $10,000 a year on medical care, and one in five Americans has reported problems with paying his or her medical bills.

But medical debt can put a dent in more than your bank account. It can also land on your credit report and negatively affect your credit score.

Here are three credit facts you need to know about medical debt:

1. You Have a 180-Day Grace Period

When late payments land on your credit report, they can do an enormous amount of damage to your credit score. When you’re late on a traditional bill like a credit card or utility payment, the late payment can be reported to the credit bureaus after only 30 days past due.

With medical bills, you get a longer grace period. In 2017, the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – agreed to give consumers 180 days to resolve medical bills before they can be reported as late.

This is helpful because sifting through confusing medical bills, resolving issues with insurance companies, and verifying the accuracy of charges can be time-consuming and take much more than 30 days.

2. Medical Debts May be Treated Differently

Medical debt can be treated differently than student loans, credit cards, and other traditional debts. For one thing, unpaid medical bills that later get settled by your insurance company must be removed from your credit report (though you should verify they have been removed).

Some newer credit scoring models, such as the newer FICO scores, will treat medical debts in collections less severely than other debt types (but there’s no guarantee that when you submit a credit application, the creditor will be using the latest scoring model).

3. You Don’t Have to be Notified When a Bill is Sent to Collections

Health care providers are not required to inform you before they turn over a medical debt to collections. You might not even be aware there’s an unpaid bill in your name until you’re contacted by a debt collector. Bills can and do fall through the cracks or are sent to the wrong people – billing in the healthcare industry is notoriously rife with errors.

How to Avoid a Medical Bill from Affecting Your Credit

The best way to protect your credit from medical bills is to ensure that all your bills are paid on time. You’ll need to pay all balances you owe and make sure your insurance provider is paying its fair share. This is easier said than done, but you have 180 days after you receive a bill to work out any issues.

If you can’t afford a medical bill, you can try to negotiate an alternative repayment solution – such as a repayment plan or a smaller lump sum – with your health care provider before the 180-day grace period is up.

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