Can You Go To Jail For Not Paying Medical Bills?

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

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.”


Quite literally, they take the subpoena for the named debtor to appear in court and throw it in the sewer.


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.

Published by
Chad Van Horn

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