Medical debt has long been a common problem in the United States. Medical debt statistics in 2019/20 revealed that about 20 million Americans have a total of $45 billion worth of medical debt in collections. It’s no wonder why many people go under because of medical bills.
A lot of people file for bankruptcy due to a job loss, divorce, or separation. Does bankruptcy clear medical bills, too? The answer is yes. Filing for bankruptcy can wipe out your medical bills.
You’re probably wondering what percentage of bankruptcies are caused by medical bills. In 2019, 66.5% of all bankruptcy proceedings were related to medical issues and about 530,000 families sought out bankruptcy relief every year because of medical problems and debt.
Can You Get Rid of Your Medical Bills by Filing for Bankruptcy?
Yes, you can get rid of your medical debt by filing for bankruptcy. There’s no specific bankruptcy proceeding that deals with medical debt alone. However, this legal process can offer you medical debt relief because it’s considered a non-priority unsecured debt. Filing for bankruptcy can also discharge other types of debts, including:
- Overdue utility and cell phone bills
- Overdue rent payments
- Debts to family and friends
- Personal loans
- Credit card debt
What Type of Debt is Medical Debt?
Medical debts fall under the non-priority unsecured debt because they’re not secured by collateral. Lenders must take legal action, win the lawsuit, and secure a judgment before they can take your property to pay your medical bills. Whether you file a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, medical debt goes at the bottom of the list of debt that needs to be repaid. In most cases, medical debt is discharged, which means it doesn’t get repaid at all.
What To Do if You Get Sued for Medical Debt?
Nobody wants to get sued. Dealing with unpaid debt is a problem already and facing a lawsuit will only make things worse. Here’s what you should do if you’re getting sued for medical debt:
- Find out who the debt belongs to.
- Never ignore a lawsuit, regardless of the type of debt you owe. Consult a lawyer so that you’ll know how to proceed.
- Try to negotiate with the doctor, medical facility, or debt collector for a more favorable repayment plan.
- Prepare for the court proceedings. Don’t forget to get legal representation.
- Know your rights. Did they inform you about the lawsuit? Were you served with the notice properly? If not, you can use these as part of your legal defense.
- Understand wage garnishment so that you’ll know what to expect if you lose the case. If the judge rules against you or if you failed to answer the lawsuit, the court may issue an order that allows the lender or collection agency to garnish your wage.
- Look for financial assistance programs.
- Consider filing for bankruptcy.
Which Type of Bankruptcy Chapter Should You Use to Get Rid of Medical Debt?
Before anything else, you need to remember that bankruptcy will leave a significant effect on your credit report, which will last from 7 to 10 years. It’s a decision that should not be taken lightly. Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy can help get rid of your medical debt. But the processes involved are different for each type of legal proceeding.
If you don’t have a regular or stable income and your assets have little to no equity, a Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be a good option. There’s no cap to the number of debts you need to have. Plus, it’s a good solution if your goal is to get rid of your medical debt.
Meanwhile, Chapter 13 bankruptcy is best if you didn’t qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If you have a stable income and there are assets that you don’t want to lose, then this option is for you. The court will issue a repayment plan that lets you make affordable payments to your debt, including your medical bills. Once the plan ends, the court will discharge all of your remaining debt.
How is Medical Debt Treated Under Chapter 7 Bankruptcy?
Under Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, the trustee won’t prioritize your medical bills when paying off your debt during the bankruptcy proceeding. Any outstanding medical debt usually ends up forgiven even if the trustee manages to set aside a certain amount to make a partial payment for your medical bills.
Chapter 7 can discharge any amount of medical debt as long as you’re eligible, which is determined by passing the means test. The bankruptcy means test determines if your income falls below or above your state’s median income level.
This type of bankruptcy proceeding lasts between four and six months. During this period, you may lose some of your property, especially if they’ve been used as collateral for your loans. The trustee may sell your assets and use the proceeds to pay back your creditors.
Some assets may be exempted, such as welfare benefits, Social Security benefits, and unemployment compensation. Eligible debts are forgiven or discharged once the bankruptcy proceeding ends. Chapter 7 gives you debt relief, but it will stay on your credit report for up to 10 years.
How is Medical Debt Treated Under Chapter 13 Bankruptcy?
Chapter 13 Bankruptcy can help make repaying your debt more manageable. The court will provide a debt repayment plan, which lasts from three to five years. It involves making monthly installments, which are less than 15% of your disposable income.
Unlike Chapter 7, Chapter 13 bankruptcy may last for several years, and it has a limit on secured and unsecured debt, which are $1,257,850 and $419,275, respectively.
You must have a regular income so that you can pay back your loans according to the court-mandated payment plan. Debts are separated into priority secured debt and non-priority unsecured debt. Overdue taxes, domestic support obligations, mortgages, and auto loans fall under priority secured debts.
Meanwhile, credit card balances and medical debt don’t receive priority. Since they’re unsecured, you may pay only a portion of them under the Chapter 13 plan. At the end of the repayment period, any remaining balance on your medical debt, unsecured loans, and secured loans will be wiped out.
What are the Consequences of Filing for Bankruptcy?
- You may lose your property, including real estate, antiques, jewelry, and vehicles. The court may require you to sell your assets to repay your debt under Chapter 7.
- The people who co-signed your loan may be held partly accountable for your debt if you file for bankruptcy.
- Bankruptcy will leave a negative mark on your credit report for up to 10 years. It will affect future financial transactions, such as being charged higher interest rates, less favorable loan terms, or worse, rejection of your loan application.
- You may find it difficult to secure mortgage approval. If lenders accept your application, you’ll be required to pay a higher down payment and interest rate.
What are the Alternatives to Filing for Bankruptcy?
1. Negotiate with Your Medical Provider
Negotiate a settlement with the medical provider. Ask if you could get lower repayments if you manage to provide a lump sum payment. You can also ask if you could agree on a new repayment plan with more favorable terms, such as lower payments over a longer period.
2. Apply for Assistance Programs
Many hospitals offer assistance programs to cash-strapped patients. You can also check with local charities for financial support.
3. Check Your Bills
Double-check your medical bills. Make sure that all the entries are correct and that you’ve authorized all the medical examinations or procedures performed. Your medical bills should also show that your insurance provider settled all your covered expenses.
4. Consider Debt Management
Find a non-profit credit counseling agency that can help you with debt management. They can suggest a repayment plan to your creditors and convince them to offer you reduced charges.
5. Consolidate Your Debt
If you owe money from different lenders, debt consolidation could be a good option. It allows you to combine all of your debts into a single loan. The total amount of debt will be the same, but you may get a better interest rate and repayment terms.
6. Transfer Your Debt to a Credit Card with a Lower Interest Rate
Look for credit card providers that offer low interest and transfer rates for new or existing clients. They could help you save on fees, penalties, and other additional charges that pile up because of your outstanding medical debt.
7. Seek Assistance Through Crowdfunding
Is Bankruptcy the Best Option to Eliminate Your Medical Debt?
Although the idea of getting rid of all your medical debt may be tempting, you need to consider carefully if filing for one is your best option at the moment.
Do you think you’ll most likely experience financial hardship in the future? If yes, then bankruptcy might not be a good solution. Take Chapter 7 bankruptcy for example. If you get a discharge, you’ll have to wait for eight years before you can get another. It means you’ll have to deal with all your debt if you face financial distress during that period.
If you don’t have any property or only have income or assets that fall under exempted assets, creditors cannot garnish your wage or seize your belongings. You don’t need to file for bankruptcy if that’s the case.
If your financial hardship is temporary, check if you can wait out the statute of limitations (duration a creditor can sue you and get a money judgment against you) in your state. Once it expires, creditors can no longer force you to pay the debt. However, if you choose this route, the outstanding debt will negatively affect your credit report.
Many people turn to Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy to clear their medical debt. Choosing which type of bankruptcy is appropriate depends on your current financial situation. Before you make any decision, be sure to do your research first. Keep in mind that bankruptcy can wipe out your medical bills, but it will negatively affect your credit score. Try alternatives to get rid of your medical debt first before filing for bankruptcy.