Tres Biggs went to jail due to strict debt collection laws in his hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas

By Julie Mazziotta
February 11, 2020 09:00 AM

Heather and her son Lane Biggs just needed medical care. A few years ago, Lane was getting treated for leukemia, which he was diagnosed with at age 5, and at the same time, his mom Heather developed seizures from Lyme disease. That left the family with piles of medical debt that they couldn’t afford.

They didn’t make enough to afford health insurance, but they made too much to qualify for Medicaid.

“We had so many multiple health issues in our family at the same time, it put us in a bracket that made insurance unattainable,” Heather told CBS News. “It made no sense. We would’ve had to have not eaten, not had a home.”

Her husband, Tres, was working two jobs in their hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas, where the poverty rate is twice the national average, but it wasn’t nearly enough to pay off the debt, which hit $70,000. After he missed a court appearance about his unpaid bills and was unable to get the money for the $500 bail, Tres was sent to jail.

“You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over a medical bill,” he said. “[It was] scary. I was scared to death, because, you know, I’m a country kid. I had to strip down, get hosed and put a jumpsuit on.”

In Coffeyville, attorneys have taken advantage of the growing medical debts in low-income households. One lawyer interviewed by CBS News, Michael Hassenplug, pushed the local judge to establish a law that requires people with unpaid medical bills — even ones as low as $28 — to come to court every three months and say that they are too poor to afford their bills, called a “debtor’s exam.” And if they miss two of those court appearances, an arrest warrant goes out for contempt of court with a $500 bail.

Tres said that when it happened to him, they had “maybe $50 to $100” in the bank — not the $500 needed to make bail.

“I’m just doing my job,” Hassenplug argued. “They want the money collected, and I’m trying to do my job as best I can by following the law.”

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But any money that is collected means a big payday for Hassenplug. While bail money is typically returned to defendants when they come to court, in Coffeyville, the money goes to attorneys, CBS News reports.

“I get paid on what’s collected,” he said. “If the bail money’s applied to the judgement, I get a portion of that.”

A ProPublica report from October called Hassenplug the “most notorious” debt collector in town, where on a single day 90 people had been summoned over unpaid bills, in a town of 9,000.

In their report, Hassenplug faced a man with disabilities, who attested in his “debtor’s exam” that he likely would never be able to pay off his medical bills due to a lack of money.

“Well, this will end when one of us dies,” Hassenplug responded.

The Biggs told CBS News that they don’t believe jail is the right answer for managing these crushing medical debts that they’re trying their best to pay off.

“I mean, it wasn’t like we weren’t paying any of our medical bills, that was the problem,” Heather said. “We couldn’t afford to pay all of them.”

 

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