Ambulance, Judge, Jail: When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested. For ProPublica
Ambulance, Judge, Jail: When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested.
On the last Tuesday of July, Tres Biggs stepped into the courthouse in Coffeyville, Kansas, for medical debt collection day, a monthly ritual in this quiet city of 9,000, just over the Oklahoma border. He was one of 90 people who had been summoned, sued by the local hospital, or doctors, or an ambulance service over unpaid bills. Some wore eye patches and bandages; others limped to their seats by the wood-paneled walls. Biggs, who is 41, had to take a day off from work to be there. He knew from experience that if he didn’t show up, he could be put in jail.
Before the morning’s hearing, he listened as defendants traded stories. One woman recalled how, at four months pregnant, she had reported a money order scam to her local sheriff’s office only to discover that she had a warrant; she was arrested on the spot. A radiologist had sued her over a $230 bill, and she’d missed one hearing too many. Another woman said she watched, a decade ago, as a deputy came to the door for her diabetic aunt and took her to jail in her final years of life. Now here she was, dealing with her own debt, trying to head off the same fate.
Biggs, who is tall and broad-shouldered, with sun-scorched skin and bright hazel eyes, looked up as defendants talked, but he was embarrassed to say much. His court dates had begun after his son developed leukemia, and they’d picked up when his wife started having seizures. He, too, had been arrested because of medical debt. It had happened more than once.
Crystal Dyke, pictured outside of her home in Leroy, Kansas with her husband and two children, was arrested while pregnant because she missed hearings involving a $230.00 radiologist bill.
Across the country, thousands of people are jailed each year for failing to appear in court for unpaid bills, in arrangements set up much like this one. The practice spread in the wake of the recession as collectors found judges willing to use their broad powers of contempt to wield the treat of arrest. Judges have issued warrants for people who owe money to landlords and payday lenders, who never paid ff furniture, or day care fees, or federal student loans/ Some debtors who have been arrested owed as little as $28.
More than half of the debt in collections stems from medical care, which, unlike most other debt, is often taken on without a choice or an understanding of the costs. Since the Affordable Care Act of 2010, prices for medical services have ballooned; insurers have nearly tripled deductibles — the amount a person pays before their coverage kicks in — and raised premiums and copays, as well. As a result, tens of millions of people without adequate coverage are expected to pay larger portions of their rising bills.
In jurisdictions with lax laws and willing judges, jail is the logical endpoint of a system that has automated the steps from high bills to debt to court, and that has given collectors power that is often unchecked. Though the district that includes Coffeyville does not track how many cases end in arrest, more than 30 warrants have been issued against medical debt defendants. At least 11 people were jailed in the last year alone.
With hardly any oversight, even by the presiding judge, collection attorneys have turned this courtroom into a government-sanctioned shakedown of the uninsured and underinsured, where the leverage is the debtors' liberty.
Text by Lizzie Presser