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Unpaid medical bills are still harming people's credit scores despite new policies

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This year, three national credit agencies announced new policies to prevent unpaid medical bills from hurting people's credit scores. Those policies are helping millions of people but may fail some people who are hit the hardest, including a North Carolina woman who met reporter Aneri Pattani as part of an investigation into medical debt from NPR and Kaiser Health News.

ANERI PATTANI: Penelope Wingard is tough. She survived breast cancer, a brain aneurysm and, later, surgery on both eyes. But saving her life has come at a steep cost.

PENELOPE WINGARD: After the radiation, that's when the debt and the bills started really coming in because I wasn't able to pay the doctors, and I was uninsured.

PATTANI: Penelope - she goes by Penny - lives in North Carolina, which hasn't expanded Medicaid. That means she doesn't qualify for public insurance. She's now free from cancer, but for the past eight years, Penny's been battling something else that's felt just as tough as a chronic illness - medical debt. Symptoms include daily bills in the mail, harassing calls from collectors, and her credit score has taken a hit. When she applies for jobs, it shows up as a red flag on background checks, and she thinks it makes employers question her character.

WINGARD: And it's like you're being punished for being sick. And it's not your fault, and no one should feel like they're being punished.

PATTANI: The debt also makes it difficult for Penny to get medical care. One of her surgeons and her original oncologist stopped seeing her because she had outstanding bills. She's managed to find other specialists who are OK letting the bills pile up. But how long will their goodwill last?

WINGARD: I just pray, especially with Dr. Graham and Dr. Grayson, they don't stop seeing me 'cause the bills keep adding up.

PATTANI: The new policies announced this year are meant to help people like Penny. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion said they'd take certain types of medical debt off credit reports. So if you were late paying a doctor or a hospital bill, that'll no longer hurt you. And if you have a medical bill that's less than $500, even if you haven't paid it, that won't show up on the report, either. People still owe money for those bills, but the idea is to erase the black marks on their credit history so they can do things like get a car loan or qualify for an apartment.

But a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found these policies are not reaching people who have the highest amounts of debt. These are generally Black Americans and people living in the South. That's Penny Wingard. She's 58, Black, living in Charlotte. And the policy changes won't affect most of her bills.

WINGARD: They're not less than 500. I wish they were. If they were less than 500, I would be able to pay it myself.

PATTANI: Penny's resourceful. She's found clinics that work on sliding-scale fees, a pharmacy program that reduces co-pays and various nonprofits that help cover health care costs. She works temporary jobs and drives for Lyft. But that doesn't come with benefits, and she can't afford private insurance. To get an idea of what it would take to make a dent in Penny's debt, I asked her to look up her credit report. We hopped on a laptop together and requested one online.

So we're going to click here to get your free credit report.

At the top of the page. It showed a total debt of nearly $10,000, then as we scrolled down, a series of notifications, each one a ding on Penny's credit. Those dings went on for five pages.

WINGARD: Go to the next one. Collection, collection, collection, collection, collection. And I promise you, all of them are medical bills.

PATTANI: She rushed to clarify for me. It was like she was ashamed and didn't want me to think her bills were from shopping sprees. And then we realized something else - the report only went back two years. It wasn't even showing all of Penny's medical debt.

WINGARD: Yes. See; it doesn't go back.

PATTANI: It doesn't go back.

WINGARD: Two years, it's 10,000. So imagine it goes all the way back. It's a lot more than that. I'm sure it's - well, something I don't even want to think about.

PATTANI: It was overwhelming. Penny asked to take a break and step outside. Later, she told me we never should have looked up the report. She was better off not knowing how bad her situation was. Penny doesn't think she'll ever be able to pay off those bills. And if she can't pay them, they'll continue dragging down her credit score, making it impossible to qualify for loans, loans that she desperately needs to repair her broken fridge and stove and to fix a leak in her ceiling. To get by so far, she's had to borrow from family.

WINGARD: And I think it does take a toll on my family, and I think it takes a toll on me to have to ask so much of them, you know? It makes you feel worthless, like you can't do anything.

PATTANI: Medical debt is wearing Penny down. The latest policy change didn't help her, but she's still hopeful that the nation will find a fix.

INSKEEP: Aneri Pattani with our partner Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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