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Hounded over medical bills? Know your rights

Thousands of individuals who have been hounded for overdue medical bills are about to get a welcome surprise: a check.

As part of a federal crackdown on shady practices by medical debt collectors, a big collection company has agreed to pay out $5.4 million to more than 23,000 consumers. The move comes six months after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau completed an extensive study that revealed that one in five U.S. consumers has a credit report marred by medical debt, often because the debt reporting companies failed to provide basic consumer protections.

The CFPB says its settlement with Syndicated Office Systems, which will result in consumers receiving checks of $100 to $1,000, is an indication of its seriousness in halting illegal practices in the medical debt collection industry.

"The trend is going in the right direction," said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. "But some systemic problems can only be fixed by legislation."

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Over the past six months, consumers with medical debts have won a number of minor victories that may help them prevent an illness from destroying their otherwise good credit. Earlier this year, the major credit scoring firms downgraded the impact of medical debt on credit scores, finding that medical debtors were much better risks than other kinds of people who owed money.

There's a good reason why. Half of all overdue debt on credit reports stems from unpaid medical bills, and a substantial number of these bills are unpaid as the result of delays in insurance reimbursements, medical billing errors and billing disputes, according to the CFPB.

In March, a group of state attorneys general argued that these early-stage debt disputes did not belong on credit reports at all. They were able to win a settlement with the major credit reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian and Trans Union -- that will stop them from reporting delinquent medical debt until the bill is at least 180 days past due.

Still, billing disputes with medical providers and insurers can take months to resolve, marring people's credit records. That problem demands a legislative fix, Wu said, noting that any blemish remains on the consumer's credit record for seven years.

Such a bill was introduced just last month by U.S. Reps. John Carney, D-Delaware, and Andy Barr, R- Kentucky. The Medical Debt Relief Act would erase repaid medical debts from credit reports within 45 days of being paid off.

However, that legislation is a long way from passage, and the medical system is increasingly leaving consumers with surprising unreimbursed costs. Indeed, the Affordable Care Act has caused thousands of doctors and dentists to shift into new care networks, leaving otherwise prudent consumers like Chrisina LaMontagne, general manager of health at NerdWallet, shouldering surprise "out-of-network" fees.

"I got caught up by visiting my regular dentist," LaMontagne said, explaining that she discovered the dentist had left her network when she got the bill. "The majority of people who call us with bills that are $5,000 or more have had some sort of in-network/out-of-network complication."

She now advises consumers to check whether the provider is in network before every appointment, and, ideally, get the assurance in writing. You can also ask medical providers to give an estimate of what your cost will be for planned procedures and how much of that cost will be covered. Don't be shy about shopping medical costs, either, LaMontagne said. "Our research shows that pricing can vary widely for the same procedures."

If you get an outrageous bill and want to dispute it, call the provider's medical office and ask them to put a hold on that bill, she suggests. That should give you extra time before the debt is declared delinquent and the clock starts ticking on when it can appear on your credit report.

"Don't necessarily trust the bills you receive," LaMontagne added. "Plenty of errors occur and you should make sure the bill is correct before you pay it."

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The Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Fair Debt Collection Act give consumers the right to ask for verification of the amount owed when they're approached by a collection agent. The collection agent is supposed to suspend all collection activity until they provide the consumer with information about the original bill, and any fees and charges that were added to it, through something called a "validation notice." Any consumer who is approached to pay a medical bill that seems suspicious should ask for this notice.

If an errant delinquency for a medical bill appears on your credit report, you also have the right to dispute that entry. The provider of the inaccurate information is supposed to investigate and either verify or remove the item in question within 30 days.

If you think a medical collector is failing to follow these rules, report it to the CFPB, the federal agency formed under the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law to protect consumers from abuse. These are the violations that Syndicated Office Systems was cited for, according to the CFPB.

As part of its settlement, Syndicated must identify all consumers who asked for a debt validation notice and never received one. If these consumers made a payment on the unverified amount, they are due a full refund of the amount they paid and any remaining account balance will be forgiven, according to the settlement. Consumers who did not make any payments, but failed to get a validation notice from the company, will get checks for $100. The CFPB estimates that Syndicated Office Systems failed to send debt validation notices to more than 10,000 consumers.

At least 13,000 consumers also disputed items on their credit report and Syndicated Office Systems failed to respond to those disputes in the requisite 30 days. In fact, Syndicated sometimes dragged its heels for more a year, according to the CFPB. Those consumers are due between $100 and $1,000, depending on the amount of time they had to wait, according to the settlement.

When exactly those checks will hit the mail is currently unclear, however. The company has 60 days to report on how it will identify harmed consumers and how it will provide relief.