As someone who always pays my bills in full and on time, I had no sense of what it meant to be contacted by collections. However, after the birth of my child, I was surprised to find that the hospital sent me to collections.

After an adjustment from insurance following the birth of my child, the hospital where I gave birth owed us about $1,800. They said they would send a check, but a month passed and it didn’t arrive. They were able to refund it on my credit card, and I assumed all would be well.

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Shortly after that, I received a bill for the exact amount they had refunded to me. When I called to see what the problem was, they said that I didn’t owe the money and I shouldn’t receive any more bills. Two more bills came, and each time when I called, they said that I didn’t owe anything. When the final notice came, I’d had enough. I made sure to get it in writing that I didn’t owe anything. I asked if I would be sent to collections, and they said that I didn’t need to worry.

Being Sent to Collections

The hospital was wrong. I began receiving calls from collections, and honestly, I didn’t take it well.

I told the collections agents to stop calling me because I didn’t owe anything. But they said that they were simply doing their job.

After three calls in three days, I finally spoke to a supervisor, who said that she couldn’t do anything. The hospital would need to recall the account.

Despite the stress of the situation, here are a few things I’ve learned from having my medical bill sent to collections:

  1. Do your research
  2. Know your rights
  3. Don't ignore the bill

1. Do Your Research

In the event that you aren’t aware that you owe debt, you can ask the collector to send you verification of the debt. This is essentially a letter that states who you owe, how much, and other identifying information, such as your account number. With that information, you can decide whether or not to pay off the debt. If you don't owe the debt, contact the company and see what you can do to get the account recalled.

Further Reading: If it turns out that you actually do owe money, consider seeking debt relief help.

2. Know Your Rights

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you. That means they can’t call you at inconvenient times or places (before 8 a.m., after 9p.m., at work). A collector is prohibited from pretending to be someone else — like a lawyer or a government representative — to deceive you.

You have the right to tell them to stop contacting you. Write a letter that indicates they may not contact you, and send it with return receipt to the collector. They can then only reach out to say that there will be no further contact or to tell you whether they intend to file a lawsuit against you to collect.

3. Don’t Ignore the Bill

Your debt will not automatically disappear if you don’t pay. Every state has its own statute of limitations for the amount of time by which a creditor can sue you for the debt. If the debt is older than four to six years in Georgia, for example, the creditor can’t sue me. Some people may assume that if you don’t pay by that time, you will no longer owe the money. Unfortunately, that debt may stay on your credit report until the seven-year limit for negative information ends. Additionally, if you choose to pay on an old debt, it might re-open the time limit. Always consult a lawyer if you’re unsure of the best course of action.

How My Story Ended

As for my situation, the hospital claimed to have sent a check that I never received nor cashed. However, it was impossible on their end to put a stop payment on the check, so the software automatically showed that I owed them money. I was sure that I would need a lawyer. But thankfully, I got in writing that the account was recalled from the collections agency and that it would be resolved internally. I checked my credit report to make sure that the non-existent debt didn't affect my credit. I was able to do this for free with Credit Sesame, and so far nothing has shown up.

I'd never wish this experience on anyone. Between adjusting to life with a newborn and postpartum healing, I should not have had to deal with the stress of being sent to collections. At the same time, at least now I know my rights.