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Can You Go To Jail For Not Paying Medical Bills? – Explained

by | Apr 8, 2024 | Finances | 0 comments

Imagine finding yourself behind bars, not for committing a crime, but for the “offense” of being unable to pay your medical bills. It may sound like a dystopian nightmare, but for many Americans, the threat of jail time for unpaid medical debt is a harsh reality. In a country where healthcare costs can easily spiral out of control, leaving patients with insurmountable bills, the question remains: can you really go to jail for not paying your medical debt?

Can You Really Go to Jail for Not Paying Medical Bills?

The Legality of Debtors’ Prisons in the United States

The concept of debtors’ prisons – jails designed to house those who are unable to pay their debts – has been illegal in the United States for over a century. The Supreme Court has ruled that imprisoning individuals for their inability to pay debts violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the reality is far more complex, and the threat of jail time for unpaid medical bills persists.

While it is true that you cannot be directly imprisoned for failing to pay your medical bills, there are legal loopholes that can lead to arrest and jail time. These loopholes often involve the tactics employed by debt collectors and the lack of legal protection for those facing civil trials related to their medical debt.

How Medical Debt Can Lead to Arrest and Jail Time

Medical debt can quickly escalate from a civil case to a criminal case through the actions of debt mills – law firms that specialize in collecting debts. These firms often use aggressive tactics to pressure debtors into paying, including the threat of jail time. While it is illegal to arrest someone for unpaid medical bills directly, debt collectors can exploit legal loopholes to have debtors arrested for related issues, such as failing to appear in court or contempt of court.

In some cases, debt collectors may even resort to “sewer service” – the practice of falsely claiming that a debtor has been properly served with a court summons. This can lead to a default judgment against the debtor, resulting in wage garnishment, property liens, and even arrest warrants.

Debt Collector Tactics and Their Consequences

Legal Actions Debt Collectors Can Take

Debt collectors have a range of legal tools at their disposal to pressure debtors into paying, including:

  • Wage garnishment: A court order that requires your employer to withhold a portion of your earnings to pay off your debt.
  • Property lien: A legal claim against your property, such as your home or car, which can be seized if you fail to pay your debt.
  • False affidavit: A sworn statement containing false information, used to obtain a judgment against you.
  • Sewer service: The practice of falsely claiming that you have been properly served with a subpoena, leading to a default judgment against you.

If a debtor fails to respond to a subpoena or does not appear in court, the judge may issue a warrant for their arrest. This can result in the debtor being jailed until they can post bail or until a hearing is held.

The Lack of Right to Counsel in Civil Debt Trials

One of the most significant challenges faced by those struggling with medical debt is the lack of right to counsel in civil trials. Unlike in criminal trials, where defendants have the right to an attorney even if they cannot afford one, individuals in civil debt trials are not guaranteed legal representation. This leaves many debtors navigating the complex legal system on their own, often with little understanding of their rights or the potential consequences of their actions.

Real-Life Examples of Arrests for Medical Debt

The American Civil Liberties Union Report on Medical Debt Arrests

In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that 44 states allowed arrest for medical debt in cases where debtors failed to appear in court. The report highlighted the story of Rex Iverson, a Utah man who was arrested for failing to appear at a hearing related to his unpaid ambulance bill. Tragically, Iverson committed suicide shortly after his arrest, underscoring the devastating impact that medical debt and the threat of imprisonment can have on individuals’ lives.

Another notable case involved Medical Recovery Services LLC, an Idaho-based debt collection company. The firm faced scrutiny for its aggressive tactics, which included seeking arrests warrants for debtors who missed court hearings. These cases demonstrate the very real consequences that can arise from medical debt, and the urgent need for reform in the medical debt collection industry.

Hospital Policies and Practices Regarding Medical Debt

The Doctrine of Necessaries and Its Impact on Medical Debt

Many hospitals rely on the doctrine of necessaries, a legal principle that originated in early English common law, to hold spouses liable for each other’s medical debts. This doctrine assumes that a husband is responsible for providing his wife with necessities, including medical care. In modern times, some states have expanded this doctrine to apply to both spouses, regardless of gender.

The doctrine of necessaries can lead to situations where one spouse is held liable for the other’s medical debt, even if they were unaware of the debt or did not consent to the treatment. This can create significant financial burdens and legal complications for families already struggling with medical expenses.

Alternatives to Legal Action: Hospital Financial Assistance Programs

Many nonprofit hospitals are required by federal law to have a financial assistance policy in place. These policies are designed to provide assistance to low-income patients who are struggling to pay their medical bills. Some hospitals, such as the Oregon Health and Sciences University, have begun using presumptive eligibility software to proactively identify patients who may qualify for financial assistance.

Hospital Program Description
Danville Regional Medical Center Service-Credit Patients can volunteer at the hospital to pay off their medical debt

The Service-Credit program at Danville Regional Medical Center in southern Virginia allows patients to volunteer at the hospital in exchange for credits towards their medical bills. Patients like Ms. Wilson have successfully used this program to pay off their debts without resorting to legal action.

The Medical Debt Collection Industry and Its Key Players

Complaints Against Medical Debt Collection Firms

The medical debt collection industry is dominated by large firms such as Transworld Systems Inc, which is owned by the private equity firm Platinum Equity. Platinum Equity’s founder and CEO, Tom Gores, is a billionaire who also owns the Detroit Pistons and sits on the board of directors for the UCLA Medical Center.

Companies like Transworld Systems have faced numerous complaints and lawsuits over their aggressive debt collection practices. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) database contains thousands of complaints related to medical debt collection, highlighting the widespread nature of this issue.

As Dr. Luke Messac, an MD and PhD affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, points out, medical debt has evolved from a personal issue to a complex financial instrument that can cause significant harm to patients’ well-being. Addressing this crisis will require a multi-faceted approach that includes reforming hospital policies, regulating debt collection practices, and expanding access to affordable healthcare.

While it is rare for individuals to face jail time solely for unpaid medical bills, the threat of arrest and imprisonment remains a very real concern for those struggling with medical debt. By understanding the legal landscape, seeking assistance from advocacy organizations, and holding hospitals and debt collectors accountable, patients can better protect themselves and their families from the devastating consequences of medical debt.

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