Listen: Medical bills upended his life and his credit rating

This story is part of an ongoing investigation by KHN and NPR into medical debt.

Penelope Wingard is tough. She survived breast cancer, a brain aneurysm and surgery on both eyes. But saving his life was expensive.

Wingard – who goes by the name ‘Penny’ – is now cancer free. But for the past eight years, she’s struggled with something that’s seemed as difficult as a chronic illness: medical debt. Symptoms include daily bills in the mail and harassing calls from collectors. And his credit rating took a hit.

She resigned herself to living with the ramifications of medical debt.

These include being cut off from doctors until she pays off her debt, having to borrow money from her family for medical emergencies, and being kicked out of her job when her low rating credit shows up as a red flag during background checks.

“It’s like you’re being punished for being sick,” Wingard said.

This year, three national credit bureaus announced new policies to prevent medical debt from hurting people’s credit scores. Consumer advocates celebrated, believing relief was finally on the way for millions of Americans struggling with medical bills.

It turns out the new policies won’t help Wingard.

A report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that the policies would not reach many of those hardest hit by medical debt. Like Wingard, they tend to be black Americans living in southern states that haven’t expanded Medicaid.

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