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What Happens If You Can’t Pay Medical Bills?

Written by Allison Martin

Allison Martin is a personal finance enthusiast and a passionate entrepreneur. With over a decade of experience, Allison has made a name for herself as a syndicated financial writer. Her articles are published in leading publications, like, Bankrate, The Wall Street Journal, MSN Money, and Investopedia. When she’s not busy creating content, Allison travels nationwide, sharing her knowledge and expertise in financial literacy and entrepreneurship through interactive workshops and programs. She also works as a Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI) dedicated to helping people from all walks of life achieve financial freedom and success.

Updated May 21, 2023​

4 min. read​

what happens if you can't pay medical bills

You’re going about your daily life when your health takes a turn for the worse. Suddenly, you find yourself in the emergency room or doctor’s office receiving a series of treatments. Or you learn that the prognosis is grim and your condition is severe enough to warrant long-term care.

So, you agree to do whatever it takes to heal, only to be hit by the stress that comes with large medical bills that you have no idea how you’ll afford. There was no way to anticipate the debt, and now you desperately need relief to protect your financial and credit health.

Fortunately, unpaid medical bills aren’t the end of the world. Here’s what happens if you can’t pay medical bills, and what to do about it:

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What Happens If You Cannot Pay Your Medical Bills?

Let’s first review what happens if you can’t pay medical bills, and all the different ways this can happen your current and future financial situation:

Debt Collectors

Once your medical bills remain unpaid for a few months, the hospital or medical provider will generally sell the debt to a collection agency for pennies on the dollar. Debt collectors will start calling, sending letters, or both in an attempt to collect what’s owed. If you ignore collection calls and letters without making any payments on the medical debt, the frequency of contact will likely increase.

Penalties, Late Fees and Interest

You can also expect the hospital or medical provider to add late fees and interest on the unpaid balance. Fee structures are typically disclosed in the agreement you sign when receiving treatment, so you should refer to this document to ensure they’re adequately assessed when you’re ready to resolve your medical debt.

Credit History Damage

After a medical bill is delinquent for 180 days, it can be reported to the three credit bureaus – Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Unfortunately, collection accounts have serious consequences for your credit health. They can linger on your credit report for up to seven years. Furthermore, you could find it challenging to secure loan and credit card products with competitive rates in the near future if your credit score drops significantly.

Lawsuits Resulting In Liens And Garnishments

If a substantial amount of time passes and the collection agency isn’t having much luck collecting on the debt, they could resort to a lawsuit to get a judgment against you. This will allow the debt collector to recoup what’s owed through liens and wage garnishments.

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How To Deal With Medical Bills You Can’t Afford

If you can’t pay your medical bills, look at some options you have instead of ignoring the problem:

Do Not Ignore Your Medical Bills

It’s tempting to ignore medical bills, especially if you’re facing financial hardship. But turning a blind eye will only lead to accelerated collection action as the hospital or medical provider will likely sell the debt to a collection agency. Furthermore, your credit will take a hit once it’s reported to the credit bureaus.

Review Charges For Accuracy

Gather your billing statements and explanation of benefits (EOB) forms. Review the documents to confirm the charges are accurate. If you notice discrepancies, duplicates, unauthorized charges or entries for services or medications you didn’t receive, contact the billing office right away. Also, notate any expenses that your insurance policy should’ve covered but didn’t, and notify your insurance company of the error.

Negotiate Your Bill

Ask the hospital or medical provider for a discount on your bill. Explain that you’d like to pay for services you’ve received but are having trouble because the outstanding balance is too high. You could get a break if you agree to make a lump sum payment or offer to pay in full within one to three months.

If you’re not having much luck, refer to the Healthcare Blue Book that lists average service costs for medical treatment at various hospitals and doctor’s offices. You can also use this information to make a valid argument when negotiating your bill.

Also, be mindful that patients who aren’t insured are typically billed at a higher rate than individuals who have coverage. So, you could ask to be charged the lower rate to possibly get a discount on services.

Ask For A Payment Plan

Many providers and hospitals offer interest-free payment plans to help patients resolve outstanding medical bills. Depending on the provider, you can choose a monthly payment amount that works for your budget, or they will choose it for you based on your finances. If you enter into a payment plan, you must abide by the terms and conditions of the agreement to prevent accelerated collection activity or damage to your credit.

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Consolidate Your Medical Debt

You can consolidate your medical debt using a personal loan or credit card with a promotional interest-free period. There are also medical debt relief consolidation programs that can assist you with overwhelming balances.

If you take out a personal loan, you’ll use the funds to pay the medical bills and make equal monthly installment payments with interest over a set period. Be mindful that the best interest rates are generally reserved for borrowers with good or excellent credit, so a lower credit score means you’ll likely get a high interest that could make the monthly payment unaffordable.

Credit cards with zero-interest periods can also help you consolidate medical debt. But here’s the catch: you want to pay off the balance within the promotional period – typically between 12 or 24 months – or you could end up paying a fortune in interest.

Medical debt relief consolidation programs can help reduce your medical debt but may only be a good fit if you’re certain repaying the amount you owe isn’t a possibility, or you are considering bankruptcy to eliminate the balances. More on these plans shortly.


Bankruptcy should only be used as a last resort to get relief from your medical bills. Before moving forward, exhaust all your options and consult with a bankruptcy attorney to determine if this approach makes sense for your financial situation.

FAQs About What Happens if you Can’t Pay Medical Bills

Can you go to jail for not paying your medical bills?

No. Even if your medical bills are turned over to a collection agency that aggressively pursues you for payment, you cannot go to jail for failing to pay. However, the debt collector can sue you in court to get a judgment, which may lead to wage garnishment.

Can you get your medical bills forgiven?

Some medical providers and hospitals have hardship programs for low-income individuals. You could get a portion or all of your medical bills forgiven if you meet the qualification criteria. There are also federal, state-sponsored and community programs that offer financial assistance to individuals with debilitating illnesses who are uninsured or have inadequate income to pay medical expenses.

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