Medical bills can wreck credit, even when paid off

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Mike and Laura Park thought their credit record was spotless. The Texas couple wanted to take advantage of low interest rates, so they put their house on the market and talked to a lender about a mortgage on a bigger home in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs.

Their credit report contained a shocker: A $200 medical bill had been sent to a collection agency. Although since paid, it still lowered their credit scores by about 100 points, and it means they’ll have to pay a discount point to get the best interest rate. Cost to them: $2,500.

A growing number of Americans could encounter similar landmines when they refinance or take out a loan. The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation that sponsors health care research, estimates that 22 million Americans were contacted by collection agencies for unpaid medical bills in 2005. That increased to 30 million Americans in 2010.

Surprisingly, even after the bills have been paid off, the record of the collection action can stay on a credit report for up to seven years, dragging down credit scores and driving up the cost of financing a home. An estimated 3.4 million Americans have paid-off medical debt lingering on their credit reports, according to the Access Project, a research group funded by health care foundations and advocates of tougher laws on medical debt collectors.

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