Consumer Reports: Medical debt hurts your credit score

New rules for credit agencies give patients more time to resolve bills

More than one-quarter of Americans with health insurance have received a surprise medical bill, according to a recent survey from Consumer Reports. Those health care charges can have big consequences, because medical bills can drag down your credit score. The good news is: new rules may help. 

The three big credit agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- are now required to wait 180 days before putting an unpaid medical bill on a credit report. So, if you’re disputing a claim, let the hospital or doctor’s office know you need more time to sort things out. 

CONSUMER REPORTS: How to fight big ER bills

If your insurance company ultimately pays a bill, it has to be taken off your credit report. If the bad debt doesn't disappear, you’re going to have to follow up with your health care provider to get proof of payment, and you might have to insist that the debt is removed from your credit report.

Make sure to monitor your credit reports, and if the bad debt doesn’t disappear, Consumer Reports suggests writing to the credit reporting agencies to request that the debt be erased and provide proof of payment by the insurer.

CONSUMER REPORTS: Should you ever prepay a hospital bill?

If you need help resolving medical billing problems, an organization called the Patient Advocate Foundation can be a good resource. Start at its website

Consumer Reports also cautions against plunking down potentially high-interest-rate credit cards to pay medical bills. Many health care providers offer installment plans to help you make payments with little or no interest.

CONSUMER REPORTS: 6 steps for lowering your medical bills

So how do you make a deal in paying off your debt? Consumer Reports says if the medical bill is legitimately owed, but paying it would be a struggle, try to negotiate with the health care provider to lower the amount or write it off.

Nearly 40 percent of people in a Consumer Reports survey negotiated payment and 57 percent of them were successful in lowering their bill. The bill may be reduced if you can pay the whole amount up front.