Hold collectors at bay by keeping accounts current

Dear To Her Credit,I am 23-year-old graduate student trying to get on my feet. Alittle over a year ago I had a life-and-death situation and had to go to theemergency room. The first emergency room could not do anything for me so I hadto go to another hospital. Now I have huge bills from both hospitals.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a collection agencyconcerning the bill from the second hospital. I informed them that I am unableto pay because I'm not working and am currently attempting to pay off the firsthospital bill. 

Not long before I got sick and had to go to the emergencyroom, I got married. Now the collection agency is threatening to garnish my newhusband's wages. It is already difficult to be a college student and notcontribute to the household income. I got really upset when they wereunsympathetic, even though I told them that as soon as I finished off the firstdoctor bill I would start paying on their bill. The collection agency was veryrude and threatened to process my account and attempt to collect the debt. 

It is hard being a newlywed and now I feel like I havebecome a burden to my husband and my marriage due to a hospital bill.  We do not have any medical insurance becausewe cannot afford any. I don't know what to do and am open to suggestions. -- Jessica

Dear Jessica,I know you feel bad about not contributing to the familyfinances and now having big medical bills, but you and your husband are in thistogether "in sickness and in health." He wouldn't have married you ifhe thought you were a burden. Besides, you should have many, many years to makeit up to him.

If you live in a community property state -- Arizona,California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin --unfortunately the collection agency is right. New York attorney Edward E. Neiger says, "Ifthis is a community state, then a spouses' wages are considered maritalproperty and they can be garnished."

"In a noncommunal property state, wages are safe,"Neiger says. If you don't live in one of the states listed, the collectionagency is bluffing. They cannot garnish your husband's wages.

Either way, you are liable for the bill. I'm curious as to whyyou are paying the hospital that didn't help you before you pay the one thatapparently saved your life. If it were me, I'd be more anxious to pay thesecond one. I might even challenge the first hospital bill, depending on howfar they got before they decided they couldn't do anything!

In any case, it's seldom a good idea to make payments justto one creditor and expect the other creditor to wait their turn. Hospitalswill take your other bills into consideration when they figure out what you canpay, but hospital No. 2 is not going to wait for its first payment until hospitalNo. 1 is paid in full.

You may be able to get your hospital bill reduced orforgiven in your situation. However, it won't happen unless you ask. Go to thepatient accounts services department of the hospital and ask to speak to arepresentative. Be prepared to give information about your monthly income andexpenses. They will generally take your case to a committee and get back to youwith the results.

When you know how much of the bill you have left to pay, sitdown with a patient accounts representative and ask to work out a payment plan.Once you have a plan and are sticking to it, you won't have to worry aboutcollection agencies or garnishment of wages.

Don't take it personally when collection agencies are rude.It's not their job to be sympathetic. Their job is to scare, shame or otherwisesomehow get you to send them money. As unpleasant as that is, there are somepeople out there who wouldn't pay their bills any other way. The billcollectors can't tell you, as a person who is doing the best you can, from thedeadbeats who don't try.

Don't even waste your time talking to collection agencies onthe phone. If they call again, tell them to communicate with you only by mail. Bylaw, they cannot keep calling you after you've told them to stop.

As you've discovered, a medical emergency can happen toanyone, at any age. As soon as possible, find a way to get catastrophicinsurance for you and your husband so you won't find yourself in this situationagain.

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