PITTSBURGH — When consumers have medical debt that is sent to the collections department and then shows up on their credit reports, they may be penalized excessively by credit-scoring agencies, according to a recent study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Medical debt has been a big problem for Americans, and the federal agency decided to take a look at how credit-scoring models — which produce scores used for everything from getting a home loan to setting credit card interest rates to getting a job — assessed the money that people owed.
"Getting sick or injured can put all sorts of burdens on a family, including unexpected medical costs. Those costs should not be compounded by overly penalizing a consumer's credit score," said Richard Cordray, director of the Washington-based Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"Given the role that credit scores play in consumers' lives, it's important that they predict the creditworthiness of a consumer as precisely as possible."
Medical debt can stem from an unpredictable and costly event. Sometimes the debt can even be caused by billing issues with medical providers or insurers.
A separate study by the Federal Reserve Board found over half of all collections showing up on credit reports are associated with medical bills. The vast majority of medical debt reflected on credit records is reported by third-party collection agencies. A collection account generally can stay on someone's credit report for up to seven years.
Many current scoring models do not discern the difference between medical and nonmedical debt in collections, although medical debt is a different animal than other types of unpaid bills reported by collection agencies, such as unpaid telephone or utility bills.
"Complaints to the CFPB indicate that many consumers do not even know they have medical debt in collections until they get a call from the collections agency or they discover the debt on their credit report," the report said.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau study considered 5 million anonymous credit records from September 2011 to September 2013 to assess how well a common credit score predicted a consumer's future likelihood of paying back debt. It looked at the credit histories and scores of consumers in September 2011 and then examined their actual loan payment patterns over the next two years.
The study showed credit scores may underestimate creditworthiness by 10 points for consumers who owe medical debt when reporting agencies treat medical and nonmedical debt that goes into collections the same. Consumers with medical debt generally paid back their loans or bills on par with consumers that have scores about 10 points higher.
Also, scores may underestimate creditworthiness by up to 22 points after consumers have paid off medical debt because traditional scoring models have not accounted for repayment of medical debts in collection.
The agency concluded that allowing for different treatment of paid and unpaid medical collections, and different treatment of medical and nonmedical collections in credit scoring, might improve the scores of consumers with medical collections and those who have paid their medical collections in full.