White House: Medical debt can no longer be used on credit reports

The White House has proposed a rule to block medical debt from affecting credit scores - UnSplash +

Ban of repossession of medical devices added in

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has proposed a rule that would  remove medical bills from most credit reports, increase privacy protections, help to increase credit  scores and loan approvals, and prevent debt collectors from using the credit reporting system to coerce  people to pay.

The proposal would stop credit reporting companies from sharing medical debts with  lenders and prohibits lenders from making lending decisions based on medical information. The  proposed rule is part of the CFPB’s efforts to address the burden of medical debt and coercive credit  reporting practices. 

"The CFPB is seeking to end the senseless practice of weaponizing the credit reporting system to coerce  patients into paying medical bills that they do not owe,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. "Medical bills  on credit reports too often are inaccurate and have little to no predictive value when it comes to  repaying other loans." 

In 2003, Congress restricted lenders from obtaining or using medical information, including information  about debts, through the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act. However, federal agencies  subsequently issued a special regulatory exception to allow creditors to use medical debts in their credit  decisions. 

Regulatory loophole

The CFPB is proposing to close the regulatory loophole that has kept vast amounts of medical debt  information in the credit reporting system. The proposed rule would help ensure that medical  information does not unjustly damage credit scores, and would help keep debt collectors from coercing  payments for inaccurate or false medical bills.  

The CFPB’s research reveals that a medical bill on person’s credit report is not a good predicter of  whether they will repay a loan. In fact, the CFPB’s analysis shows that medical debts penalize consumers by making underwriting decisions less accurate and leading to thousands of denied applications on  mortgages that consumers would repay.

Since these are loans people will repay, the CFPB expects lenders will also benefit from improved underwriting and increased volume of safe loan approvals. In terms of mortgages, the CFPB expects the proposed rule would lead to the approval of approximately  22,000 additional, safe mortgages every year. 

In December 2014, the CFPB released a report showing that medical debts provide less predictive value  to lenders than other debts on credit reports. Then in March 2022, the CFPB released a report estimating that medical bills made up $88 billion of reported debts on credit reports. In that report, the  CFPB announced that it would assess whether credit reports should include data on unpaid medical bills.  

Since the March 2022 report, the three nationwide credit reporting conglomerates – Equifax, Experian,  and TransUnion – announced that they would take many of those bills off credit reports, and FICO and  VantageScore, the two major credit scoring companies, have decreased the degree to which medical  bills impact a consumer’s score.  

$49 billion in debt

Despite these voluntary industry changes, 15 million Americans still have $49 billion in outstanding  medical bills in collections appearing in the credit reporting system. The complex nature of medical  billing, insurance coverage and reimbursement, and collections means that medical debts that continue  to be reported are often inaccurate or inflated.

Additionally, the changes by FICO and VantageScore  have not eliminated the credit score difference between people with and without medical debt on their  credit reports. We expect that Americans with medical debt on their credit reports will see their credit  scores rise by 20 points, on average, if today’s proposed rule is finalized.  

Under the current system, debt collectors improperly use the credit reporting system to coerce people  to pay debts they may not owe. Many debt collectors engage in a practice known as “debt parking,” where they purchase medical debt then place it on credit reports, often without the consumer’s  knowledge. When consumers apply for credit, they may discover for the first time that a medical bill is  hindering their ability to get a loan. Consumers may then feel forced to pay the medical bill in order to improve their credit score and be approved for a loan, regardless of the debt’s validity.  

Specifically, the proposed rule, if finalized would: 

Eliminate the special medical debt exception: The proposed rule would remove the exception  that broadly permits lenders to obtain and use information about medical debt to make credit  eligibility determinations. Lenders would continue to be able to consider medical information  related to disability income and similar benefits, as well as medical information relevant to the purpose of the loan, so long as certain conditions are met. 

Establish guardrails for credit reporting companies: The proposed rule would prohibit credit  reporting companies from including medical debt on credit reports sent to creditors when creditors are prohibited from considering it. 

Ban repossession of medical devices: The proposed rule would prohibit lenders from taking  medical devices as collateral for a loan, and bans lenders from repossessing medical devices, like  wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs, if people are unable to repay the loan.

The National Consumer Law Center is asking consumers who are interested in this proposal to comment here.

Consumer advocate group responds

In response to the CFPB issuing its proposed rule, Patricia Kelmar, U.S. PIRG’s health care campaigns director, give ConsumerAffairs the following statement:

“We have known for years that medical debt doesn’t predict credit defaults, nor does it accurately predict a person’s desire and willingness to pay off loans," Kelmar said

"The CFPB agrees. These newly proposed rules are an important step toward implementing a fair credit system that doesn’t penalize people for life events they can’t control, such as getting sick or injured.”

Aging-in-place? Find a modern medical alert system to ensure help is always near.