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Consumer Alert

A bill arrives a year later. Do you have to pay it?

An issue that has come up recently regards old bills, particularly old medical bills, and at what point you no longer have to pay them.

Anyone with health insurance — and that ought to be everyone — is likely to have noticed that just about any time you owe some money to a practitioner, there’s likely to be a lag before the bill arrives. That’s because the medical provider and insurance company have some figuring and reconciling to do.

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Have you met your deductible? How much did you pay when you were there? Was the charge properly coded? What is the insurance company’s share? What’s the insurance company rate? And, ultimately, what’s left that you owe?

Eventually, a bill gets sent. It could be a few weeks, often even a few months, after the service was provided. But, as some readers have experienced — and it’s certainly more exception than rule — it can also take a lot longer than that.

So, the question was raised, when are you no longer responsible for the debt? One reader wistfully asked if a year passes, do you still have to pay?

Yes.

As much as you might have been unprepared for a bill and as annoying as it is to be charged for something that seems a distant memory, as long as the charge is proper you’re on the hook.

Each state has some sort of statute of limitations for collecting on debts and, in Massachusetts, it’s six years. That means that you can’t get sued over a debt older than that.

But what you should do when so much time has passed is to make sure there hasn’t been a billing error. That means checking to see if you had previously paid, checking with the insurance company about what they paid, and asking for any supporting documentation to confirm the bill is accurate.

Once you’re clear it’s legitimate, you have to pay. The last thing you want to do is let a bill go unpaid just because you wished it had never come. It will be a lot harder dealing with a bill that has gone to collection and ends up on your credit history.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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