Stories

Courts threaten patients with jail time over unpaid medical bills

Millions of debt collection lawsuits are overwhelming state courts, and almost half are from hospitals and doctor's offices for unpaid medical bills, ProPublica reports.

What's happening: People all over the country are discovering a warrant out for their arrest after unknowingly missing a court date. Even if they are able to pay the debt, bail is posted instead.

Debtors' prisons are illegal in the U.S., but judges and lawyers have found a workaround: If people with unpaid bills are no-shows in court when summoned, they can be jailed for contempt.

Most of the people tried through this process didn't pay their bills because they just don't have the money, ProPublica found.

In many courtrooms, several legal questions still loom regarding the bail money and how hospitals lobby for what is owed:

"If the judge is upholding the rule of law, he would give the bail money back to you when you appear in court. Instead, he is using his power to take money from you and hand it to the debt collector. It raises constitutional questions.”
— Peter Holland, former director of the Consumer Protection Clinic at the University of Maryland Law School, tells ProPublica

Go deeper: At hospital nonprofits, lawsuits frequently target former patients