Q: I’m freaking out. I have an old hospital bill from 2011. I thought I had paid it off. My insurance covered 80 percent, and I owed $3,000 and change after all was said and done. I no longer have the paperwork, I have a different insurance company, I’ve moved twice, and the hospital was closed in 2014 by the corporation that owned it.
So this morning, I get a call from a debt collector who “owns” my unpaid balance. What unpaid balance? About the same as the whole bill before my insurance kicked in – it’s in the low five figures but it might as well be a new jumbo jet’s price tag, because I can’t pay it. Since that accident, I’ve graduated from college, moved across the state, married and have a small child. I’m paying rent, student loans, plus a car payment, and even with a good job, it’s tight.
And then the collector tells me that they can have me thrown in jail until I pay up. It wasn’t said in a menacing tone, it was just matter-of-fact. I said that debtors’ prisons have been illegal for over a century. He said that they have ways to do it that are perfectly legal, and if I want to find out how it works, I should just keep doing what I’m doing. Help. I need answers.
Can you go to jail for not paying medical bills?
A: I’d like to put your concerns to rest, but it would be unfair of me to do so without knowing more about your case. The reason is this that there are a number of law firms out there that are learning how to work around the law to turn a civil case – like medical bills – into a criminal case. These firms are called debt mills, and they don’t pick on people with money – they go after the people who will suffer the most, and therefore pay the fastest – whether they owe the debt or not. They garnish wages, place liens on property, swear falls affidavits, and the efforts to properly serve a subpoena even have their own slang term – “sewer service.”
When you fail to appear, then the judge can issue a warrant that allows you to be arrested. So, in this way, you can be jailed for debt. What’s worse, is that unlike a criminal trial, you have no right to counsel in a civil trial, and these attorneys know that. They also know that you’re unlikely to be able to afford a lawyer, and that the courts are not looking out for you, they’re just following the process.
You need make an appointment with me for a free consultation at my Fort Lauderdale office, or West Palm Beach. It is actually illegal to threaten you with jail time for your debts. In my office, I can give you the best legal advice – which is hard to do in this forum. You gave me some good information, but we need to get the whole picture, and then hit this collector hard.