Unbelievable as it sounds: Patients in the United States are going to jail because of unpaid medical bills.
Last fall, the independent non-profit news outlet ProPublica published an explosive investigation by Lizzie Presser, which uncovered how patients in Kansas were being sent to jail for unpaid medical bills.
“I spent several weeks this summer in Coffeyville, reviewing court files, talking to dozens of patients and interviewing those who had sued them,” Presser wrote in her Pulitzer-worthy piece. “Though the district does not track how many of these cases end in arrest, I found more than 30 warrants issued against medical debt defendants. At least 11 people were jailed in the past year alone.”
Debtors’ prisons are technically illegal in the United States. However, that hasn’t stopped judges, including Judge David Casement in Coffeyville, Kansas, from sending patients to jail for missing a court date for an unpaid bill. That included mother Crystal Dyke. She was arrested — while pregnant — because she missed hearings for a $230 radiologist bill.
In some cases, caregivers missed court dates because they had hearings on dates when a child was seeking treatments. Tres Biggs was sent to jail after missing court dates that fell on days when son Lane was receiving leukemia treatments at an out-of-town hospital.
“We had so many — multiple health issues in our family at the same time, it put us in a bracket that made insurance unattainable,” wife Heather Biggs, who suffered seizures from Lyme disease, told CBS News. “It would have made no sense. We would have had to have not eaten, not had a home.”
Unlike traditional failure to appear cases, the bail money for medical debt cases in Coffeyville haven’t been returned to the patients, but are being sent to an attorney representing the plaintiff provider.
“If the judge is upholding the rule of law, he would give the bail money back to you when you appear in court,” says Peter Holland, the former director of the Consumer Protection Clinic at the University of Maryland Law School. “Instead, he is using his power to take money from you and hand it to the debt collector. It raises constitutional questions.”
What can be done to stop patients from being sent to medical debtor prisons?
“We’re fighting to end this abusive medical debt collection tactic,” says Terry Wilcox of Patients Rising, a national patient advocacy nonprofit organization. “We don’t need to wait for a legislative solution. Any provider that is aggressively pursuing debts should stop employing such ruthless tactics.”
“It’s really that simple: Just do the right thing.”
Wilcox has teamed up with Katy Talento of PatientRightsAdvocate.org and Dr. Martin Makary, MD at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to find a solution. They’ve asked the local hospital for a meeting to discuss ways to reform its debt collection practices.
“We are hopeful that you will commit to reviewing the current billing practices of the hospital and to implement meaningful reforms that could position Coffeyville Regional Medical Center as a beacon of transparency, compassion and a market leader teaching other facilities how to do health care right,” the patient advocacy coalition wrote in a letter to local hospital administrators and directors.