Kansas County Jails People for Unpaid Medical Bills
by Douglas Ankney
A county in rural Kansas is jailing people over unpaid medical debt, CBS News reported in February 2020. The county is Coffeyville, Kansas, which has a poverty rate twice the national average.
It’s also the place where attorneys such as Michael Hassenplug have built a successful law practice assisting medical providers to collect debt owed by their neighbors.
Coffeyville has a policy that requires people with unpaid medical bills to appear in court every three months. In what is termed a “medical exam,” the debtors must swear they are too poor to pay. The policy was put in place through Hassenplug’s recommendation to the local judge. “I’m just doing my job,” Hassenplug insisted. “They want the money collected, and I’m trying to do my job as best I can by following the law.”
But the policy also provides for the arrest of anyone who misses two debtor’s exams. Bail is set at $500, which in most jurisdictions is refunded once the bailee appears in court. But in Coffeyville, it goes to attorneys and to the medical companies.
Tres Biggs’ son has leukemia and his wife suffers from Lyme disease. Working two jobs, he missed two exams. “You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over medical bills,” Biggs said. “I was scared to death. I’m a country kid. I had to strip down, get hosed, and put a jumpsuit on.”
Lizzie Presser from ProPublica reported that the judge in Coffeyville has no law degree, but in the last year had issued more than 30 warrants against medical defendants, with 11 jailed.
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