NEW YORK — Nearly two-thirds of people who complained to federal regulators about medical debt collectors said they did not owe the money, a new report found.
The report, by the advocacy group United States Public Interest Research Group — better known as US PIRG — and the Frontier Group, a left-leaning think tank, examined more than 17,000 publicly available complaints about medical debt collection filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau over more than three years. Researchers determined that more than 60 percent of the complaints made one of the following contentions: that the debt wasn’t owed in the first place, that it had already been paid or had been discharged in bankruptcy, or that it wasn’t verified as debt the consumer actually owed.
“Debt collectors often go after the wrong people,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for US PIRG.
Complaints about medical debt are the second-largest cause of debt collection complaints made to the bureau, after credit cards, the report found. About 10 collection companies were responsible for about 20 percent of the complaints, the report noted.
Chi Chi Wu, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, said the findings in part reflected the complexity of the health care payments system, which often involves insurers that may pay all or part of the cost of care. Consumers may not understand the details of how their insurance works and may think it covers more than it actually does. Co-payments and deductibles — the amount that you pay before insurance does — can often trip people up.
“The medical and health care billing process is just really confusing and complicated,” Wu said.
The report also detailed complaints about abusive behavior by collectors, as reported by some consumers. In one instance, a consumer received a call at work, supposedly from a doctor calling about a medical emergency. But the call turned out to be from a debt collector. In another, collectors called a consumer’s relatives to demand payment.
The consumer bureau shares responsibility for enforcing the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which bans abusive practices. It has taken several actions in recent years to rein in aggressive medical debt collection activities.
A representative of ACA International, a trade group for debt collection companies, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
For those who are called by a collector about a medical debt, Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, offered some advice:
■ First, confirm who is calling — is it an affiliate of the hospital or doctor’s office where the treatment occurred, or is it an outside debt collector? If it is the original care provider, he said, “You have more negotiation options up front.” The patient might ask if a partial payment is acceptable or if making monthly payments is an option.
■ Keep detailed notes of the call, including the time of the call and what was said.
■ In general, patients should avoid the temptation to pay off medical debts with a credit card. The card will carry double-digit interest and may end up making debt worse.
Wu said consumers can ask for verification that they actually owe the bill. If the collector called repeatedly, the recipient can send a letter telling them to stop. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers sample letters on its website.
Also, patients should check a credit report at least annually to help head off possible damage to their credit, Wu said.