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County jails people over medical debt: "I was scared to death"

Universal healthcare is seen as a radical idea in the United States. You know what's a radical idea? Not imprisoning people who can't afford expensive medical care.

County jails people over medical debt: "I was scared to death"
Image Source: Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir / Getty Images

The United States is still the only developed country in the world to not offer its citizens universal healthcare. This means healthcare in the US is far more expensive in comparison to its Western counterparts. Families can run up massive amounts in medical bills with no reasonable way to pay them back. While this just seemed like a statistic in the past, a county in rural Kansas has just shown us why that's a huge problem. In a shocking move, the county of Coffeyville, Kansas, began jailing families who were unable to pay back their medical debt, CBS News reports.




The Biggs family was one of the first to be affected by this appalling policy. At five years old, Tres and Heather Biggs' son Lane was diagnosed with leukemia. During the same time period, Heather experienced seizures due to Lyme disease. "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 and mother Heather explained. "It would have made no sense. We would have had to have not eaten, not had a home." In order to keep up with the medical bills, Tres was working two jobs. However, this was not enough to keep the family afloat.



One day, the concerned father was sentenced to jail for failing to appear in court for unpaid medical bills. "You wouldn't think you'd go to jail over medical bills," he said of the terrifying experience. "I was scared to death. I'm a country kid — I had to strip down, get hosed and put a jumpsuit on." His bail was priced at $500. At the time, the Biggs family only had $50 to $100 in savings. The reason Tres had to undergo that awful experience for something like medical bills is because of an oppressive law instituted by attorney Michael Hassenplug, who makes a killing by representing medical providers and collecting the debt owed by the folks of Coffeyville.



Those with unpaid medical bills are instructed to appear in court every three months. During a "debtors exam" held at these hearings, the debtor is forced to explain that they are too poor to pay off their medical debts. If a debtor misses two hearings - perhaps because they had to work or take care of their family - they are held in contempt by the court and a subsequent arrest warrant is issued. Bail is always set at $500. "I'm just doing my job," Hassenplug affirmed when asked about the horrific law. "They want the money collected, and I'm trying to do my job as best I can by following the law." The attorney gets a cut of whatever is collected - whether it's a portion of the debt or bail money.




Unlike other areas where bail money is returned to the individual who paid it, Coffeyville shares a cut with its lawyers. Evidently, this practice seems unjust and unfair. It may also be unconstitutional, according to Nusrat Choudhury, the deputy director of the ACLU. She said, "This raises serious constitutional concerns. What's happening here is a jailhouse shake-down for cash that is the criminalization of private debt." On one day alone, CBS News reported more than 60 people swore in court they didn't have enough money to pay back their debts. Only one of those Coffeyville residents had an attorney representing them. It's time for the federal government to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and do better for our citizens.



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