Listen: Medical bills cost her life and her credit score

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

Penelope Wingard is tough. She survived breast cancer, a brain aneurysm and surgery on both eyes. But saving his life came at a heavy price.

Wingard — who goes by “Penny” — is now cancer-free. But for the past eight years, she’s been battling something that has felt as difficult as a chronic illness: medical debt. Symptoms include daily bills in the mail and harassing calls from collectors. And his credit score took a hit.

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

These include being cut off from doctors until he pays off his debts, having to borrow money from family for medical emergencies and being rejected from jobs when his low credit score shows up as a red flag on background checks.

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

This year, three national credit agencies announced new policies to prevent medical debt from damaging people’s credit scores. Consumer advocates celebrated, thinking relief had finally come to millions of Americans struggling with medical bills.

It appears that the new policies will not help Wingard.

A report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that the policies would not reach many of the people most affected by medical debt. Like Wingard, they tend to be black Americans living in southern states that have not expanded Medicaid.

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