Liz Weston: Credit bureaus ease medical debt pain for a few

Too many Americans have bad credit because of unpaid medical bills. That’s not likely to change any time soon, despite two reforms in how those bills will be reported to the credit bureaus.

Starting Sept. 15:

—There will be a 180-day waiting period before unpaid medical debts can show up on people’s credit reports.

—Medical collections will be deleted from credit reports if they’re paid by health insurers.

Credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion agreed to the new standards as part of two settlements with state attorneys general in 2015. The changes in medical debt reporting were designed to help people whose bills fell through the cracks between their health care providers and their insurance companies, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center.

What the changes won’t do is help people who simply can’t afford to pay their bills or who got fed up with waiting for their insurers and paid the bills themselves.

The stakes are high. A single collection on a credit report, paid or unpaid, can drop a 680 FICO score by 40 points and a 780 score by 100 points. (The most widely used credit scoring formulas, such as the FICO 8, use a 300-to-850 range.)

Lower credit scores can:

—Make credit harder to get and more expensive.

—Raise auto and homeowners insurance premiums.

—Increase deposits required for utilities.

—Make renting an apartment difficult.

WHOM WILL THE CHANGES HELP?

About 43 million Americans have medical collections on their credit reports, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That’s one in five U.S. adults who have credit reports.

But fewer than 8 percent of those collections are listed as paid. The fraction of those that were paid by insurers and thus now eligible to be removed from credit reports is unknown. However, it’s clear that deleting insurance-paid collections won’t benefit the vast majority of people who have medical collections.

Likewise, the waiting-period change will help only a few, according to an analysis by FICO, the leading credit scoring company. Its data scientists found that only about 200,000 people, or less than 0.1 percent of the 220 million people with a credit report , will be helped by the six-month reporting delay.

“This isn’t going to have a substantial impact,” says Ethan Dornhelm, vice president for score and analytics at FICO.

That’s because the waiting period just codifies what’s already common practice. Medical providers may hire…

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