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7 years went by before an illegal rape kit bill was completely taken care of

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

More than 100 million Americans have medical bills they cannot afford to pay. NPR and Kaiser Health News are looking at the consequences of those bills in an ongoing investigation into medical debt. We found patients with depleted savings, tarnished credit scores and, one of the most surprising things, patients who were never supposed to get a bill in the first place. Reporter Aneri Pattani has this story. And a warning - it contains information about sexual violence.

ANERI PATTANI, BYLINE: Edy Adams was sexually assaulted in Illinois in 2013. At the hospital, a nurse told her she would not be charged for the rape kit. State law bans billing survivors. But two years later, Adams received a letter and then a call, a debt collector saying she owed the doctors who cared for her in the ER even though the physicians' group had gone out of business.

EDY ADAMS: So I was getting billed for a service I should not have even been charged for, that was, in fact, illegal to charge me for, by a company that no longer existed. And now I was being, like, hounded by debt collectors.

PATTANI: It turns out the physician group had sold Adams' debt to another company. Adams told the person on the phone that the bill was illegal. And they said they'd make a note of it. But a few months later, she got another call from a new company that had just bought her debt.

ADAMS: And so it just kept getting, like, passed around. And no one ever actually did the thing where they, like, made it go away. They just made it go away for them, not for me.

PATTANI: This went on for seven years. She started calling it her zombie bill. It just would not die. Each time a collector called about the bill for $130.68, Adams says she was brought back to her assault. That bill and that memory followed her everywhere.

ADAMS: This happened, like, when I was at work, when I was in class. It happened while I was driving once. I, like, literally had to pull over because I would be, like, shaking.

PATTANI: Adams' zombie bill was kept alive by the debt industry, where unpaid medical bills are sold and resold for pennies on the dollar. Jerry Ashton co-founded a nonprofit to tackle this issue called RIP Medical Debt. He says a mistake in the original bill can get passed on for years. And mistakes are disturbingly common.

JERRY ASHTON: It can run from a minimum of a third of the bill to up to 80%, OK? So there's human error abounding in this.

PATTANI: To get those errors fixed, Ashton says patients have to be as aggressive as the collectors. In Adams' case, asking people on the phone to put a note in her file never worked. She finally got frustrated and yelled at one of them. After that, her bill was reported to a credit bureau, where it damaged her credit score. She contacted the bureau and they were the ones to finally resolve the bill.

ADAMS: It really was, like, very cathartic. But also, like, how much time had I wasted of my life, like, thinking about this?

PATTANI: It had taken Adams seven years to eliminate her bill for good.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG AND LIME KAIN'S "DUNES")

MARTINEZ: That was Aneri Pattani with our partner, Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLDTWIG AND LIME KAIN'S "DUNES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aneri Pattani - Kaiser Health News