(The Hill) – Seniors face more than $50 billion in unpaid medical bills, many of which they shouldn’t have to pay, according to a federal watchdog report.
In an all-too-common scenario, medical providers charge elderly patients the full price of an expensive medical service rather than work with the insurer that is supposed to cover it. If the patient doesn’t pay, the provider sends the bill into collections, setting off a round of frightening letters, humiliating phone calls and damaging credit reports.
That is one conclusion of a recent report titled Medical Billing and Collections Among Older Americans, from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The report recounts a horror story from a patient in southern Pennsylvania over a hospital visit, which should have been covered by insurance.
“I never received a bill from anyone,” the patient said in a 2022 complaint. Then came a phone call from a collection agency. “The woman on the phone started off aggressively screaming at me,” saying the patient owed $2,300.
“I told her there must be some mistake, that both Medicare and my supplement insurance would have covered it. It has in the past. She started screaming, very loud, ‘If you don’t pay me right now, I will put this on your credit report.’ I told her, ‘If you keep screaming at me, I will hang up.’ She continued, so I hung up.”
Nearly 4 million seniors reported unpaid medical bills in 2020, even though 98 percent of them had insurance, the report found. Medicare, the national health insurance program, was created to protect older Americans from burdensome medical expenses.
Total unpaid medical debt for seniors rose from $44.8 billion in 2019 to $53.8 billion in 2020, even though older adults reported fewer doctor visits and lower out-of-pocket costs in 2020.
Medical debt among seniors is rising partly because health care costs are going up, agency officials said. But much of the $53.8 billion is cumulative, they said, debt carried over from one year to the next. Figures for 2020 were the latest available.
Millions of older Americans are covered by both Medicare and Medicaid, a second federal insurance program for people of limited means. Federal and state laws widely prohibit health care providers from billing those patients for payment beyond nominal copays.
Yet, those low-income patients are more likely than wealthier seniors to report unpaid medical bills. The agency’s findings suggest that health care companies are billing low-income seniors “for amounts they don’t owe.” The findings draw from census data and consumer complaints collected between 2020 and 2022.
Many complaints depict medical providers and collection agencies relentlessly pursuing seniors for payment on bills that an insurance company has rejected over an error, rather than correcting the error and resubmitting the claim.
“Many of these errors likely are avoidable or fixable,” the report states, “but only a fraction of rejected claims are adjusted and resubmitted.”
When a patient points out the error, the creditors might agree to fix it, only to ignore that pledge and double down on the debt collection effort.
An Oklahoma senior recounted a collection agency nightmare that followed a hospital stay. After paying all legitimate bills, the patient discovered new charges from a collection agency on a credit report. In subsequent months, additional charges appeared.
The patient assembled billing statements and correspondence, hoping to clear the bogus charges. “I then proceeded to spend every weekday, all day, for two weeks on the phone, trying to find out who was billing me and why,” the patient said in a 2021 complaint.
The Oklahoman eventually paid the bills, “even though I don’t owe them.” Then, more charges appeared.
“Nice racket they have going,” the patient quipped.
As anyone with health insurance knows, medical providers occasionally charge patients for services that should have been covered by the insurer. Someone forgets to submit the claim, or types the wrong billing code or omits crucial documentation. Some providers charge patients more than the negotiated rate, a discounted fee set between the provider and insurer.
Americans spend hours of their lives disputing such charges. But many seniors aren’t up to the task.
“It’s tiring to have multiple conversations, sitting on the phone for an hour, chasing representatives,” said Genevieve Waterman, director of economic and financial security at the National Council on Aging.
“I think technology is outpacing older adults,” she said. “If you don’t have the digital literacy, you’re going to get lost.”
Older adults are more likely than younger people to have multiple chronic health conditions, which can require more detailed insurance documentation and face greater scrutiny, yielding more billing errors and denied claims, the federal report says.
Seniors are also more likely to rely on more than one insurance plan. As of 2020, two-thirds of older adults with unpaid medical bills had two or more sources of insurance.
Multiple insurers means a more complex billing process, making it harder for either patient or provider to file a claim and see that it is paid. With Medicaid, “you have 50 states, plus the territories,” said one official from the federal agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They each have their own billing system.”
In an analysis of Medicare complaints filed between 2020 and 2022, the agency found that 53 percent involved debt collectors seeking money the patient didn’t owe. In a smaller share of cases, patients reported that collection agents threatened punitive action or made false statements to press their case.
The complaints “illustrate how difficult it is to identify an inaccurate bill, learn where it originated, and correct other people’s mistakes,” the report states. “Some providers refuse to talk to consumers because the account has already been referred to collections. Even when providers seem willing to correct their own mistakes, debt collectors may continue attempting to collect a debt that is not owed and refuse to stop reporting inaccurate data.”
Rather than carry on a fight with collection agents over multiple rounds of calls and correspondence, many seniors become ensnared in a “doom loop,” the report says, convinced their appeal is hopeless. They pay the erroneous bill.
“I think some people get to the point where they just throw up their hands and give up a credit card number just to make the problem go away,” said Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Program on Medicare Policy at KFF.
Debt takes a toll on the mental and physical health of seniors, research has shown. Older adults with debt are more prone to a range of ailments, including hypertension, cancer and depression.
As the Oklahoma patient said, recalling a years-long battle over unpaid bills, “It nearly sent me back to the hospital.”