ST. LOUIS — Your doctor needs to know a lot about you, including a lot of details you wouldn’t tell a stranger. But how much is too much?
Some hospitals have begun running credit checks on patients before a bill ever arrives. A 5 On Your Side viewer reached out to the I-Team when she noticed something on her credit report she had never seen before. In the last few years, she had visited facilities in two hospital systems in the St. Louis area.
“I feel betrayed,” said Deborah, who asked us to not show her face out of concern for her privacy. “I was absolutely stunned to see that both places had done soft credit pulls on me.”
Deborah has complex medical needs, but she doesn’t see herself as a risky customer. She said she’s always managed to pay her bills.
“I have two health insurance plans,” she added.
And as a former health care worker, Deborah said she is very cautious about who has her private information and who has permission to share it. She couldn’t recall anyone asking her permission to run a credit check at any point.
“They did that about 12 days before my first appointment with the physician,” she said of one check. For the other, she said, “The hospital did that within like a span of late afternoon to by midnight.” In all cases, she remembered, no one had yet brought up how she would pay for her care or whether she would need financing.
“They did not even know what my bill was,” she said. “How do they have the right, what is their right to do this?”
Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum, has heard from patients like Deborah more and more throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When folks are then recovering, they’re saying, what happened? Why was my credit checked dozens of times?” said Dixon.
In most cases, the checks have a simple explanation, she said.
“They want to make sure that the person they’re giving medical goods and services to can pay their bills. It’s just that simple,” said Dixon.
But she added that when hospitals don’t tell patients in advance, or the notice is buried in privacy and data authorization forms, “that will really break the trust of the patient.”
Deborah said even though she’s careful about what she signs, it’s hard to know if the authorizations included a credit check.
“When you do go to a hospital, you just sign an electric box, you sign your name, you have no idea what you're signing for,” she said.
Experian Health is the service behind the credit checks on Deborah’s report. Its parent company is the consumer credit reporting company Experian. The service provides a variety of client data management and analysis tools. On its website, Experian Health promises that it “can help organizations predict missed appointments, noncompliance with medications, and patient trajectory over time.”
In a 2018 contracting document between Experian Health and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the company says it will check coverage options for uninsured patients and use soft credit checks for “patient financial clearance.” Its patient identity verification service comes with a “digital risk score” for fraud detection.
The I-Team asked Experian Health about these services and how they use soft credit inquiries. A representative wrote:
“Experian Health solutions help healthcare organizations protect consumers by ensuring their identities are not used for fraud, and assist them by opening the door to financial support for care, among other services. The verification process may trigger ‘soft inquiries’ to a patient’s credit report.
“As you may know, soft inquiries do not impact credit scores in any way. Soft inquiries are recorded on credit reports per federal law requiring full transparency to entities that have accessed a consumer’s credit profile. Only the consumer can see the soft inquiry. Consumers can view and check their Experian credit reports for free – at any time – at Experian.com.”
In the St. Louis area, the I-Team confirmed that several hospitals do run soft credit checks on patients for certain services.
A representative of BJC Healthcare wrote:
“Currently, BJC HealthCare is planning on working with Experian on a self-signup process that includes a soft credit check, which is for identity verification purposes only. A notification about this process will be given to patients before they submit their self-sign up form. This will possibly be implemented before 2021.
Separately, Washington University Medical's statement described their usage as:
"Washington University will be using Experian as part of an enrollment process for patients who are requesting access to their own electronic medical records. This process includes a soft credit check – for identity verification purposes only – so that we can protect a patient’s health information. Patients are notified of this process before submitting their request for medical records access. We also use Experian for managing charity care evaluations."
A representative for Mercy wrote:
"Mercy does utilize Experian tools to assist with determining how to best assist our patients in meeting their financial obligations which includes helping to qualify those most financially vulnerable for free/reduced care while helping others with determining the best repayment options available."
Officials at SSM Health told the I-Team that they used to work with Experian but do not currently use their services. SSM Health has a contract with another service that does conduct soft credit checks under some circumstances.
Dixon said it is possible to opt out of a credit check at a hospital, but it might make the process of paying for care more complicated.
“Sometimes what they'll come back at you with is that they want some kind of deposit, or if you haven't paid your full deductible, they'll ask for your deductible payment in full at that time. So, it can get really ugly,” she said.
Experts recommend calling a medical office or hospital before you arrive to ask about their credit check policy.
It’s also a good idea to check your credit report regularly. You can request a free copy at annualcreditreport.com.
If you see a past provider has pulled your credit score, you have the right to ask them for proof that you agreed to it. To find out if Experian Health was involved in a credit check, look for requests in the soft pulls section of the report labeled with a hospital name, “Experian HLTH,” or “SrchAmer.”
The I-Team wants to know if you see a hospital or medical office-related credit check on your credit report that you didn’t authorize. If so, reach out to the I-Team tip line voicemail at 314-444-5231.