Q. I had some major health problems last year and am having trouble paying my medical bills. Could this affect my credit score?

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Answer: You are not alone. A recent study by Consumer Reports found that 3 in 10 Americans have $500 or more in unpaid medical bills

Medical debt can adversely affect your credit score and create various challenges for individuals. Credit history is commonly reviewed by landlords, employers and lenders. A low credit score can make it difficult to obtain housing, result in higher insurance premiums, make it more expensive to borrow money, or even result in having a loan application denied.

Fortunately, medical debt is treated somewhat differently from other unpaid balances. First, your doctor or hospital does not report the debt to a credit reporting agency directly. However, if the balance remains unpaid most medical providers will turn the bill over to a debt collector who will then report it to a credit agency if they are unsuccessful in collecting. Secondly, the three major credit reporting agencies do not report the debt to credit bureaus until 180 days after it has been incurred. In addition, the most widely used credit rating model, FICO 8, will not consider any balance under $100.

There are some steps you can take to keep bills related to medical treatment from negatively affecting your credit score. Do not assume your insurance plan will take care of everything. Have a good understanding of the Explanation of Benefits provided by your health insurance company. Review your statements monthly, and contact your insurance company if you have any questions or concerns about charges.

Ask for an itemized bill from your doctor to better understand your charges. Check to ensure that the doctor’s office did bill your insurance company. If you know you cannot afford to pay the debt, reach out to your medical provider and ask to work out a payment plan. The amount of the payment must be agreed upon by the medical office. Mailing in a small payment of your choice will not stop a medical provider from turning the debt over to collections.

If your debt has been handed over to a collection agency, you can ask the agency not to report it to the credit bureau if you pay it immediately. Even if you pay the debt, once it has been reported your credit score will not improve. To amend your score, ask the agency to “pay for delete,” which would remove the negative information from your credit report and if they agree, be sure to get it in writing. As always, be sure this is a bill you owe and not a scam. Lastly, if you believe the bill is unfair or you do not owe the charges, you have the right under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to request a copy of the debt in writing within 30 days of receiving the notice.

Financial Pathways of the Piedmont is a local resource that may be able to help. Their mission is “helping people build financial well-being.” If you were born before 1959, their service is free, but an appointment is required. The session generally lasts about an hour and a half. If you would like more information, you can reach them from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 336-896-1191 or 1-888-474-8015. Their website is financialpaths.org.

Q: My parents recently moved to a senior living community, and they do not seem to be socializing very much. Should I try to help them meet others in the community?

Answer: Moving into a new community is similar to starting a new job or the first day of school. There are new people, surroundings and activities which may take some time to get used to. Remember, everyone has different levels of readiness for change. Some people will be in denial; some may be in mourning over the loss of what they have had to leave behind. Other common reactions are feeling overwhelmed, awkward, or self-conscious. Even those who were highly social before the move may become withdrawn. Socializing with new people can be intimidating. Fortunately, most senior living communities provide a variety of opportunities for seniors to become more social.

There are many benefits of having an active social life. Studies have shown seniors who are socially engaged are more likely to exercise, have better self-esteem, and experience less anxiety and depression. Socializing also boosts cognitive health and has been shown to decrease mortality rates. Considering the benefits, it would be worthwhile for you to encourage your parents to become more integrated into their community.

To start, familiarize yourself with activities that are available, and find out which groups in the community frequently socialize together. With that information you can better approach your parents with options and information that might interest them. Ask them to show you around and introduce you to other residents. This could be a good ice breaker and help them learn more about their neighbors.

If your parents are in a residential facility, point out to them the common areas, such as dining rooms, activity rooms and TV rooms, where there may be opportunities for more indirect interaction. Most facilities have an activities director. This would be the perfect staff member to connect your parents with

Senior Services offers a Senior Lunch, group nutrition program, three days a week at four sites across Forsyth County. Senior Lunch provides a warm, friendly atmosphere and a hot lunch for seniors over the age of 60 who are able to come and enjoy a meal with friends. For more information, visit seniorservicesinc.org/services/senior-lunch-program/ or call 336-725-0907. The Shepherd’s Center also offers many opportunities for older adults to participate in social activities. For more information, visit www.shepherdscenter.org or call 336-748-0217.

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AgeWise is a weekly column compiled by staff of Senior Services Inc., a nonprofit organization in Winston-Salem. If you have a question, email agewise@seniorservicesinc.org or mail to Senior Services, 2895 Shorefair Drive, Winston-Salem, NC 27105.

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