After a devastating horse-riding accident in 2017 landed him in the hospital for a month, requiring trauma care and hospital-based therapy, Jeff Woodard considered himself lucky.
The bills amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Woodard's employer-sponsored health insurance limited his out-of-pocket maximum payment to $5,000. He reached that "within like a day," he recalled.
His retired parents relocated from their small town in Massachusetts to help Woodard, now 27, who lives just outside of Denver, through his recovery. With their support, and regular outpatient therapy, he returned to working full time in just two months.
But he didn't expect another set of payments to haunt him and his parents for nearly a year.
While medical bills are a leading source of personal bankruptcy in the U.S., a far more common problem is the widespread damage they do to people's credit. Almost 40% of adults younger than 65 reported a lower credit score because of medical debt, according to the most recent Commonwealth Fund analysis, based on 2016 data.
That means greater difficulty with transactions such as financing mortgages, taking out student loans or purchasing cars.
In Woodard's case, his parents had been deliberate in making sure that all the care their son received was within his insurance network. But it turned out that the trauma doctors at the in-network hospital were not. They were employees of Aspen Medical Management, a Colorado Springs, Colo., physician staffing firm that employs physicians and contracts them out to hospitals.
That generated about $3,000 worth of out-of-network surprise bills, sent directly to Woodard. UnitedHealthcare had paid Aspen the standard rate for in-network care, and Aspen expected Woodard to come up with the rest.
Stunned, Woodard complained to his insurer and Aspen, and filed paper appeals. His parents hectored Colorado lawmakers and filed complaints with both the hospital and various state agencies. But as notices from Aspen and then collection agencies piled up, with threats to report a delinquent bill to credit bureaus, his worry grew.
"I was planning on refinancing my mortgage," he recalled, a change that he said would have saved him $15,000. "But if I got a bad hit to my credit score, it wouldn't save me any money. I was paranoid about that."
Woodard's persistent appeals succeeded, and his debt was settled just days before it was set to hit his credit report.
"I was going to write (Aspen) a check, but my parents insisted I didn't," he said. "I was incredibly lucky."
When contacted by Kaiser Health News, an Aspen spokeswoman provided no comment.