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Democracy

15 million Americans have medical debt crushing their credit scores but that's about to end

This is great news for the millions of us with outstanding medical bills.

Millions of American families are trying to pay off medical bills that put them into debt.

A new proposed rule from the Biden administration could spell some relief for people with outstanding medical bills.

According to data collected by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), 15 million Americans are carrying $49 billion in medical debt that shows up on their credit report, potentially having a negative impact on their credit score. A new rule banning medical debt from credit reports would change that.


In the U.S., people's ability to get approved for a car loan or a mortgage to purchase a house depends heavily on their credit score or FICO score. People with a strong credit history, who make payments on time and don't carry too much debt, will usually have a good credit score and an easier time being approved for loans with the best interest rates. A low credit score makes getting a loan more difficult or more expensive.

Unfortunately, circumstances out of people's control, like medical care that puts them thousands of dollars in debt, can negatively impact their credit score.

"Medical debt makes it more difficult for millions of Americans to be approved for a car loan, a home loan or small business loan, all of which in turn makes it more difficult to just get by, much less get ahead. And that is simply not fair," Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters via teleconference.

CFPB Director Rohit Chopra also shared that having medical debt is not a fair indicator of someone's true credit habits.

"Medical debt on a consumer credit report is a very different type of debt than a mortgage, an auto loan, or a credit card," Chopra explained. "Sometimes, as is the case with a visit to the emergency room, the debt is taken on unexpectedly and in a time of crisis. Medical bills are also frequently subject to coding errors, charity care mistakes, or complexities with insurance. A decade ago, the CFPB found that medical debts were overly penalizing consumer credit scores, and we have consistently found that medical billing data on a credit report is less predictive of future repayment than other debts."

Chopra also called out the predatory practices that have influenced credit reporting systems when it comes to medical debt, providing an unfair disadvantage to consumers.

"Some have seized on medical debts as a major moneymaking enterprise," he said. "These entities purchase medical debt, sometimes for pennies on the dollar, and they can cash out big by getting consumers to pay up on those debts. And one of the easiest ways they can do so is by threatening to park that medical debt on the credit report, where it might impede a consumer’s ability to get approved for a loan. In this way, the credit reporting system more closely resembles a weapon for debt collectors rather than a tool for lenders to assess someone’s likelihood to repay a loan."

Chopra also pointed out that the three big credit reporting agencies——Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—voluntarily removed some medical debt from credit reports, only certain kinds. CFPB research found that although the number of Americans with medical debts on their credit report had decreased, the numbers were still substantial and disproportionately impact low-income Americans. Additionally, the average medical debt on credit reports had increased from $2,000 to over $3,100.

Vice President Harris said that this change would result in millions of Americans seeing a 20-point increase in their credit score on average, allowing for 22,000 more approved mortgages to buy a home. She also called on states, cities and hospitals to join the Biden administration in forgiving medical debt.

According to ABC News, the rule has been in the works since September and could go into effect early next year.