Before you respond to a medical debt lawsuit, take these 10 steps

Published: Friday, September 29, 2017 @ 10:57 AM

If you’ve ever been sued by a debt collector or service provider over medical debt, you know how stressful it can be. If you couldn’t afford to pay the original debt, you likely still can’t afford it. And if you want to defend yourself, you’ll have to face the additional time and cost of going to court, too.

You should know that you’re not alone. According to staff attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center, when you look at debt collection items on credit reports in America, “half of those items are from medical debt. Not credit cards. Not auto loans. Medical debt.”

You may be tempted to ignore the suit since you know you can’t pay, but Wu advises against inaction.

“Always show up,” she says. “Never ignore a lawsuit. If you ignore it, the debt collector or service provider on the other side automatically wins by default.”

What happens when you show up, though? Here are 10 steps to take if you’re facing a medical debt lawsuit.

10 steps to take if you’re facing a medical debt lawsuit

1. Find out where the debt comes from

You cannot properly address your lawsuit if you don’t understand where the debt comes from. If you look back at your past bills, you should be able to find a date of service and itemized list of services rendered with associated costs.

You may be in debt because you’re uninsured, but even insured patients end up in this boat thanks in part to a rise in high-deductible health plans. Mistakes can happen as well. If a patient visits an in-network hospital, but is unknowingly seen by an out-of-network doctor, they can be charged out-of-network fees. Doctors are independent contractors, so while the hospital may be affiliated with your insurance company, that doesn’t mean your service provider is inherently in-network.

2. Don’t ignore the lawsuit

In most consumer debt cases, consumers don’t have an attorney at all. But hiring an attorney to advise you can be a wise move. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either, Wu says.

Most lawyers will provide a free consult before taking you on as a client. In this consult, they may be able to help you find your bearings so you can represent yourself.

Wu recommends seeking help from the Legal Services Corporation, a government-supervised nonprofit that provides legal representation at a low cost to low-income households. You can also seek help from nonprofit legal assistance firms in your area.

If you’re uninsured, one way to keep the case from going to court is to contact the doctor or debt collector immediately to negotiate your bill down to Medicaid/Medicare prices — which are often 2-3 times less than that of the gross price you were billed. When a provider refuses to negotiate down to these lower rates, it is called “discriminatory pricing,” and your legal counsel may recommend using it as a defense in court.

3. Prepare for court

The first thing you must do is prepare an answer to the lawsuit, including any defenses or countersuits that you want to raise. This will involve filing paperwork at the court, mailing paperwork, and showing up on your initial court date. Again, it’s advisable to get a lawyer to help you through this, or at least get a consult. The National Association of Consumer Advocates has a helpful video explainer on preparing to defend a medical debt lawsuit.

It’s important to make this initial court date. It is very unlikely the judge will grant you a continuance that would move the court date further out.

There are some exceptions to this. If you are being sued in a state in which you no longer reside, it’s easier to mount a defense if you can’t appear in court. In fact, appearing in court could work against you, demonstrating to the court that you have no problem traveling to and from court out of state.

If you’ve been served in a state outside of your own, it is very important to get legal representation.

This is because you must answer the suit, but you must also do so in a way that does not imply that you are submitting to that court’s jurisdiction over you. The process is one that is best handled by someone trained in law.

After you answer the suit, the court will set a date for the discovery part of the trial. You will have to file more paperwork with the court before this date so that you are able to present evidence that you are not liable for the debt.

RELATED: 8 ways to afford dental care on a fixed income

4. Understand wage garnishment

If you are found liable for the debt, or you fail to answer the lawsuit and the judge rules against you, the court may issue an order giving the lender or collection agency the ability to garnish your wages. By federal law, they cannot leave you with less than 75% of your income or $217.50 per week — whichever is greater. State law may protect you even further.

Medical debt collectors are able to garnish your wages, but they cannot garnish Social Security benefits, disability insurance payments, unemployment insurance payments, VA benefits, pension distributions, child support payments, or public assistance benefits. If you have any of these forms of income, it’s wise to set up a different bank account where those funds are deposited and keep all garnishable wages in another separate account.

You should do this because a court order can go after your bank account balances, too. While that doesn’t make it legal to take money that came from any of these protected sources, separate bank accounts will make the incidence of errors smaller — saving you headaches and potential victimization.

5. Know your rights

When it comes to medical billing and debts, you do have rights as a patient. Make sure you understand them so you can lower or eliminate your bill before or after you’ve been sued.

Were You Served Properly?

Sometimes wages are garnished before the plaintiff is even aware that there’s a lawsuit against them. This happens most commonly when you’re improperly served. Examples of using “improperly served” as a legal defense include papers being only mailed to you and not delivered in person, papers being left at an incorrect residence, or papers being mailed to an old address. Being “improperly served” does not mean that the papers were left with a family member or friend at your residence and they forgot to tell you about it. If that happened, you’re still on the hook.

If you have been improperly served, or if you find out that the court mistakenly started garnishing wages because you have the same name as an actual plaintiff, you should contact a lawyer immediately to figure out what possible recourses there may be for your specific situation.

RELATED: Know your rights to fight back against debt collectors

6. Get low-cost or free help from financial assistance programs

In 2016, about 58% of community hospitals in the U.S. were not-for-profit, according to the American Hospital Association. This gives them tax-exempt status, but also obligates them to give back to their communities. Under the Affordable Care Act, these hospitals must provide some type of financial assistance program to low-income patients. Even if you aren’t from a low-income household, you should apply, as some hospitals extend their programs far beyond the poverty line. Many hospitals also extend this program to insured patients.

RELATED: How to get help with medical debt

These hospitals have an obligation to let you know about their financial assistance programs within four months of when your bill has been issued.

You have until eight months after the initial bill was issued to apply for financial assistance. You have the right to do this even if the debt has been sold to a third-party collector, and even if that collector is the one suing you in court.

7. Be aware of discriminatory pricing

We’ve already touched on the fact that you can try to negotiate your medical bills down to Medicaid/Medicare prices. If you are being sued in court and are uninsured, discriminatory pricing can serve as a defense. If you qualify for the hospital’s financial assistance program, they legally must reduce your bill to the amount generally billed to insured patients.

8. Look out for balance billing

Balance billing happens when your hospital or medical provider bills you instead of or in addition to Medicaid or Medicare. It’s a forbidden practice, and you are not responsible for any amounts due when this happens.

You may be able to identity balance billing if you receive an “Explanation of Benefits” from your insurer that states the amount they covered and the amount you still owe. If this does not match the bill your medical provider sent you, there is a cause for concern. Additionally, if the bill you receive does not show any payment from your insurance when you are, in fact, on Medicaid or Medicare, it may be a sign that you are a victim of balance billing.

RELATED: How a medical billing advocate can reduce your costs

9. Stop lawsuits before they begin

If something about your bill doesn’t look quite right, there are ways to reduce it to its fair amount.

First of all, make sure the hospital didn’t make an error that resulted in a larger bill. One way this could happen is if something they did caused you to have to stay in the hospital an extra night, inflating your costs beyond what they should have been originally.

Another good avenue to pursue is to have your bill examined by a medical bill advocate. They’re familiar with coding and laws that you’re not, making them the perfect people to review your charges. You may find one in your community by asking around, or you can start your search with the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.

Debt collectors, hospitals, and other medical providers don’t want to take you to court. It costs them money, and the odds of them actually getting a full payment at that point are very low. They are almost always willing to work with you before issuing a lawsuit. Negotiate. Apply for financial assistance. Set up zero-interest payment plans directly with your health care provider.

Keep the lines of communication open so that no one ends up with the additional costs of litigation.

10. Weigh bankruptcy

At any point in this process, you can choose to file for bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy may alleviate the medical debt. Just be cautious. Bankruptcy is not a decision that should be made lightly, as it will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years and make it difficult to qualify for new credit.

There are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 requires you to sell off all of your assets to settle what you can of your debt obligations. If you don’t have any or many assets, that aspect of it doesn’t matter much. What will matter is that the debt will essentially disappear after you file.

If you file for Chapter 13, you do not have to sell off any assets, but the debt won’t disappear either. Instead, you’ll be put on a 3-5 year payment plan in order to settle.

This may make sense if the court has already issued an order against your wages, but at any other point in your case, it would make more sense to try to set up a payment plan with the medical service provider or debt collection agency directly. Their last resort is wage garnishment. Don’t let it get that far. Know your rights so you can negotiate with them effectively rather than damaging your credit report through Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Beware of this trick debt collectors use to get your money!

This article originally appeared on MagnifyMoney.com.

5 fast facts that will help make filling out FAFSA a breeze

Published: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 @ 10:32 AM

The following points are what you need to know, as well as common mistakes to avoid when filling out the FAFSA Fill it out – you have nothing to lose The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better Gather the information you'll need Watch out for common mistakes like leaving fields blank Keep an eye out for requests for more information

It's that time of year again when parents and college or college-bound students fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

The idea of wading through a form – especially one that requires financial information – is definitely not an appealing idea, but the FAFSA could be a tremendous help in getting your student money to attend college.

RELATED: 20 financial aid terms every college student and parent should understand

The following points are what you need to know, as well as common mistakes to avoid when filling out the FAFSA.

Fill it out – you have nothing to lose.

You may think that you don't need to fill out the FAFSA, especially if you believe you might not qualify for need-based aid. But there's no income cut-off point with federal student aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, the FAFSA can help you qualify for all kinds of grants, loans and scholarships, including those offered by your state, school or private organizations.

By investing a few minutes of time, you could reap thousands of dollars in potential rewards.

Submit it ASAP.

The sooner you submit your FAFSA, the better, according to consumer adviser Clark Howard. Although the federal deadline isn't until June 30, 2018, you should check with the financial aid administrator at colleges you're interested in to make sure their deadlines aren't earlier.

Submitting earlier will help you plan how you'll pay for college. You'll also have a better chance of getting as much aid or scholarship money as possible since some colleges distribute their available money on a first-come, first-serve basis, Howard says.

Gather the information you'll need.

The FAFSA asks questions about the student as well as his or her parents if the student is a dependent.

You'll need the following information on hand as you fill out the FAFSA:

  • The student's Social Security number
  • The parents' Social Security numbers
  • Driver's license number (if you have one)
  • Alien registration number (if you're not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal tax information for the student (and his or her spouse, if applicable) and the parents. This can often be imported online, so you may not need your records.
  • Information on the student's and parents' assets, such as money held in bank accounts and real estate holdings (not your primary residence)
  • Records of the student's or parents' untaxed income, such as veterans benefits and interest income

Watch out for common mistakes.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators points out some common mistakes that can delay your form's submission or cause you to not get the aid and scholarships you might qualify for. They include the following:

  • Leaving some fields blank – Instead, put in a "0" or "not applicable."
  • Listing an incorrect Social Security or driver's license number – It pays to recheck these numbers.
  • Failing to use your legal name – Use the name on your Social Security card, not a nickname.
  • Forgetting to list colleges – Even if you're not sure of which college you'll be attending, add any reasonable possibilities to the list of colleges that will receive your information. You're under no obligation to apply to or attend these colleges, and they can't see which other colleges you're interested in.

Keep an eye out for requests for more information.

Your FAFSA may be selected for verification, which means you'll have to provide some additional or supporting information, U.S. News & World Report explains. This process doesn't necessarily mean you've done anything wrong. You may have a discrepancy or mistake on your form, but some FAFSAs are just randomly selected for verification (lucky you!).

These requests will often come to the student's personal email account or university email address, so he or she will have to be diligent about checking it and responding to any requests by the stated deadline.

Related

Is credit monitoring a scam?

Published: Wednesday, November 22, 2017 @ 12:01 PM

Clark Howard explains how to protect yourself.

With the recent massive security breach of Equifax — one of the three credit bureaus with which many may have thought their private information was safer than most — now many people are dealing with more insecurities, wondering where they can entrust their private information, if anywhere.

Here are some options:

Credit freezing

Better and cheaper than credit monitoring, an option for optimal security is freezing your credit through each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), according to WSB money expert Clark Howard at Clark.com.

The fee is $3 to $10 per person per bureau, depending on your state, to allow you to seal your credit reports — except now it's free with Equifax from here on out due to the recent data breach.

You will be provided with a personal identification number (PIN) that only you know and can be used to temporarily unfreeze (or "thaw") your credit when legitimate applications for credit and services need to be processed such as when you are buying a car.

This added layer of security means thieves can't establish new credit in your name even if they are able to obtain your personal information.

LifeLock vs. CreditKarma.com

While LifeLock advertises it can help consumers secure their information to guard against identity theft, LifeLock charges monthly services that start at $10 a month.

This kind of credit monitoring is not the same or as effective as a credit freeze, said Craig Johnson for Clark.com.

Instead, he recommends CreditKarma.com for free credit monitoring.

Equifax

If you haven't already frozen your credit, now would be the time since Equifax recently got hacked and the information of possibly 145.5 million people was attained by these hackers.

Information accessed primarily includes names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers.

To try to compensate, Equifax is offering free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring (but only through Jan. 31, 2018) with its TrustedID Premier.

Experian

Another point of confusion is the unsolicited free Dark Web Email Scan offered by Experian to your email, leading to a monthly fee for further scanning.

Experian IdentityWorks also offers a free 30-day trial membership for identity theft protection and resolution, involving a monthly automatic deduction of $9.99 for the plus plan or $19.99 for the premium plan.

It's free to cancel within the 30-day trial period, but the consequences are not revealed up front for those who decide to cancel their membership once the monthly fees begin.

TransUnion

The third credit bureau, TransUnion, also offers credit monitoring at $19.95 monthly. However, TransUnion says it offers free identity protection through its TrueIdentity program.

Free helpline

Those with specific questions about the Equifax breach and how it may impact them may contact Howard's Consumer Action Center — a free helpline open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST Monday through Friday with Team Clark volunteers available to answer concerns at 404-892-8227.

Related

4 of the best ways to turn your home into a cash cow

Published: Friday, November 17, 2017 @ 4:17 PM

Sites like Airbnb let you rent out your home to make money.
Sites like Airbnb let you rent out your home to make money.

Your house is a large expense with many associated costs like a mortgage payment, insurance, maintenance and more.

RELATED: How to Cash In on Short-Term Rentals Like Airbnb, VRBO

It provides a roof over your head, of course, but since it usually costs you money each month, why not put it to work for you and earn some cash in the process?

The following are four ways your house can make you money:

You can relax on the lake, in the woods or even in the back of a van when you're looking for a staycation in Gwinnett County.(Airbnb)

List your home with Airbnb or VRBO.

If you're planning to be out of town for a few days or don't mind bunking with a friend, you may be able to make some money by renting out your home through sites like Airbnb and VRBO.

Before jumping in, you'll need to take time to learn about the market, your expenses and any taxes you may need to pay. And before you list your property, you'll need to understand how to make it stand out with a good listing, including compelling photos and competitive pricing. Airbnb has a series of toolkits to help with this.

RELATED: Atlanta has Airbnb's most desired rental property in the world.

Rent it out to the area's growing TV and film industry.

When TV, film and commercial producers want to depict a home on screen, many times they'll rent the real thing, according to Money. It can be inconvenient for owners, however, since their homes may be taken over by a large crew and be completely rearranged.

On the other hand, homeowners often have fun with the experience while making some extra money. And while you're watching TV or a movie, you may be able to spot your home.

Host a foreign exchange student or faculty member.

Temporarily hosting a foreign exchange student or faculty member who's studying or teaching in this country can help you make some extra cash for anywhere from six weeks to six months at a time. You'll also be exposed to a different culture and language, and the experience could help you form a bond that lasts even when your guest returns home.

The Penny Hoarder suggests contacting student housing offices at local community colleges and universities, asking to be placed on their list of host families. After this, you'll have to apply, be interviewed, and allow your home to be toured. You'll also need to pass background and reference checks.

The 4-bedroom house sits on a corner lot with a concrete driveway that leads up to the two 2-car garages both having rear service doors. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS BY KATHY TYLER

Rent out your driveway or storage space.

If you have extra space in your driveway, you may be able to make some money by letting others park there, according to Men's Health. This is especially true if you live near a commuter rail line or sports stadium, but you'll need to check to make sure you're not violating any local ordinances. Check out websites like JustPark to get started.

The Balance also suggests renting out any extra storage space you may have. From vehicles to personal items, your garage or home could help you make money through a site like StoreAtMyHouse.

Related

5 ways to get the most out of your health insurance plan

Published: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 @ 3:15 PM

Here are five ways to ensure you're getting the most out of your health insurance Choose your plan carefully Take advantage of preventative care benefits Work within your formulary Utilize HSAs and FSAs Watch out for surprise out-of-network charges

Health insurance has a large impact on your finances, so it pays to get the most out of your plan.

Understanding its ins and outs can be confusing, but it's worth your time to check on benefits you could be losing out on or mistakes that could cost you money.

Here are five ways to ensure you're getting the most out of your health insurance:

Choose your plan carefully.

When it's time to renew your health care coverage, consumer adviser Clark Howard recommends not just blindly signing up for your current plan, even if you've been happy with it.

Your plan – as well as other options you may be able to sign up for – may have changed. Take a close look at the co-pays, deductibles, in-network providers and other specifics to make sure you're making the best possible choice.

Take advantage of preventative care benefits.

Almost every plan, according to healthcare.gov, offers preventative care benefits that are free. You won't have to pay a co-pay or meet your deductible to get these services at no charge.

Services for adults include age-appropriate vaccinations and colorectal cancer screenings for patients over 50.

RELATED: 8 ways to get the cheapest car insurance possible

Work within your formulary.

Health care plans typically have a formulary, which is a list of medications that they're willing to pay part of or the entire cost of. It may include a list of preferred medications, for which it will pay the highest percentage of the cost.

It pays to be familiar with your formulary before you get an unpleasant surprise at the pharmacy, according to NerdWallet. Print out a copy of the document from your health insurance company's website, or call up an online copy at your doctor's office. Your doctor can work with you to make sure you get an effective medication that you can afford.

Utilize HSAs and FSAs.

If your health insurance plans allow you to put aside tax-free dollars in a Health Savings Account (HSA) or Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you should learn how they can help you. Consumer advisor Clark Howard's website, Clark.com, has a chart that explains the pros and cons of each.

An HSA is usually associated with high-deductible plans, and like an FSA, it helps you save money to pay for health care expenses. These can include everything from prescription eyeglasses to medication.

Watch out for surprise out-of-network charges.

Your insurance plan has a list of network providers, and when you can, you should stay in-network. That's easy enough if you're visiting a single doctor, but if you need to have surgery, things can get more complicated.

For pre-planned surgery, Consumer Reports recommends talking with your doctor's billing department to get a list of everyone who will provide your care, including radiologists and anesthesiologists. Call your health care company to see if they're in-network, and if not, ask your doctor if in-network providers can be used.

Related