Welcome to Coffeyville, Kansas, where the judge has no law degree, debt collectors get a cut of the bail, and Americans are watching their lives — and liberty — disappear in the pursuit of medical debt collection.
ON THE LAST TUESDAY of July, Tres Biggs stepped into the courthouse in Coffeyville, Kansas, for medical debt collection day, a monthly ritual in this quiet city of 9,000, just over the Oklahoma border. He was one of 90 people who had been summoned, sued by the local hospital, or doctors, or an ambulance service over unpaid bills. Some wore eye patches and bandages; others limped to their seats by the wood-paneled walls. Biggs, who is 41, had to take a day off from work to be there. He knew from experience that if he didn’t show up, he could be put in jail.
Before the morning’s hearing, he listened as defendants traded stories. One woman recalled how, at four months pregnant, she had reported a money order scam to her local sheriff’s office only to discover that she had a warrant; she was arrested on the spot. A radiologist had sued her over a $230 bill, and she’d missed one hearing too many. Another woman said she watched, a decade ago, as a deputy came to the door for her diabetic aunt and took her to jail in her final years of life. Now here she was, dealing with her own debt, trying to head off the same fate.
Biggs, who is tall and broad-shouldered, with sun-scorched skin and bright hazel eyes, looked up as defendants talked, but he was embarrassed to say much. His court dates had begun after his son developed leukemia, and they’d picked up when his wife started having seizures. He, too, had been arrested because of medical debt. It had happened more than once.
Judge David Casement entered the courtroom, a black robe swaying over his cowboy boots and silversmithed belt buckle. He is a cattle rancher who was appointed a magistrate judge, though he’d never taken a course in law. Judges don’t need a law degree in Kansas, or many other states, to preside over cases like these. Casement asked the defendants to take an oath and confirmed that the newcomers confessed to their debt. A key purpose of the hearing, though, was for patients to face debt collectors. “They want to talk to you about trying to set up a payment plan, and after you talk with them, you are free to go,” he told the debtors. Then, he left the room.
The first collector of the day was also the most notorious: Michael Hassenplug, a private attorney representing doctors and ambulance services. Every three months, Hassenplug called the same nonpaying defendants to court to list what they earned and what they owned — to testify, quite often, to their poverty. It gave him a sense of his options: to set up a payment plan, to garnish wages or bank accounts, to put a lien on a property. It was called a “debtor’s exam.”
If a debtor missed an exam, the judge typically issued a citation of contempt, a charge for disobeying an order of the court, which in this case was to appear. If the debtor missed a hearing on contempt, Hassenplug would ask the judge for a bench warrant. As long as the defendant had been properly served, the judge’s answer was always yes. In practice, this system has made Hassenplug and other collectors the real arbiters of who gets arrested and who is shown mercy. If debtors can post bail, the judge almost always applies the money to the debt. Hassenplug, like any collector working on commission, gets a cut of the cash he brings in.
Across the country, thousands of people are jailed each year for failing to appear in court for unpaid bills, in arrangements set up much like this one. The practice spread in the wake of the recession as collectors found judges willing to use their broad powers of contempt to wield the threat of arrest. Judges have issued warrants for people who owe money to landlords and payday lenders, who never paid off furniture, or day care fees, or federal student loans. Some debtors who have been arrested owed as little as $28.
More than half of the debt in collections stems from medical care, which, unlike most other debt, is often taken on without a choice or an understanding of the costs. Since the Affordable Care Act of 2010, prices for medical services have ballooned; insurers have nearly tripled deductibles — the amount a person pays before their coverage kicks in — and raised premiums and copays, as well. As a result, tens of millions of people without adequate coverage are expected to pay larger portions of their rising bills.
The sickest patients are often the most indebted, and they’re not exempt from arrest. In Indiana, a cancer patient was hauled away from home in her pajamas in front of her three children; too weak to climb the stairs to the women’s area of the jail, she spent the night in a men’s mental health unit where an inmate smeared feces on the wall. In Utah, a man who had ignored orders to appear over an unpaid ambulance bill told friends he would rather die than go to jail; the day he was arrested, he snuck poison into the cell and ended his life.
In jurisdictions with lax laws and willing judges, jail is the logical endpoint of a system that has automated the steps from high bills to debt to court, and that has given collectors power that is often unchecked. I spent several weeks this summer in Coffeyville, reviewing court files, talking to dozens of patients and interviewing those who had sued them. Though the district does not track how many of these cases end in arrest, I found more than 30 warrants issued against medical debt defendants. At least 11 people were jailed in the past year alone.
With hardly any oversight, even by the presiding judge, collection attorneys have turned this courtroom into a government-sanctioned shakedown of the uninsured and underinsured, where the leverage is the debtors’ liberty.
SEATED AT THE FRONT of the courtroom, Hassenplug zipped open his leather binder and uncapped his fountain pen. He is stout, with a pinkish nose and a helmet of salt and pepper hair. His opening case this Tuesday involved 28-year-old Kenneth Maggard, who owed more than $2,000, including interest and court fees, for a 40-mile ambulance ride last year. Maggard had downed most of a bottle of Purple Power Industrial Strength Cleaner, along with some 3M Super Duty Rubbing Compound, “to end it all.” His sister had called 911.
Maggard took his seat. He had cropped red hair, pouchy cheeks and mud-caked sneakers. “The welfare patients are the most demanding, difficult patients on God’s earth,” Hassenplug told me, with Maggard listening, before launching into his interrogation: Are you working? No. Are you on disability? He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, and anxiety. Do you have a car? No. Anyone owe you money you can collect? I wish.
They had been here before, and they both knew Maggard’s disability checks were protected from collections. Hassenplug set down his pen. “Between you and me,” he asked, “you’re never going to pay this bill, are you?”
“No, never,” Maggard said. “If I had the money, I’d pay it.”
Hassenplug replied, “Well, this will end when one of us dies.”
Though debt collection filings are soaring in parts of America, Hassenplug speaks with pride about how he discovered their full potential in Coffeyville long before. A transplant from Kansas City, he was a self-dubbed “four-star fuck-up” who worked his way through law school. He moved to Coffeyville to practice in 1980 and soon earned a reputation as a hard-ass. He saw that his firm, Becker, Hildreth, Eastman & Gossard, hadn’t capitalized on its collections cases. The lawyers didn’t demand sufficient payments, and they rarely followed up on litigation, he said. Where other attorneys saw petty work, Hassenplug saw opportunity.
Hassenplug started collecting for doctors, dentists and veterinarians, but also banks and lumber yards and cities. He recognized that medical providers weren’t being compensated for their services, and he was maddened by a “welfare mentality,” as he called it, that allowed patients to dodge bills. “Their attitude a lot of times is, ‘I’m a single mom and … I’m disabled and,’ and the ‘and’ means ‘the rules don’t apply to me.’ I think the rules apply to everybody,” he told me.
He logged his cases in a computer to track them. First with the firm and later in his own practice, he took debtors to court, and he won nearly every time; in about 90% of cases nationally, collectors automatically win when defendants don’t appear or contest the case. Hassenplug didn’t need to accept $10 monthly payments; he could ask for more, or, in some cases, even garnish a quarter of a debtor’s wages. His fee was, and often still is, one-third of what he collects. He asked the court to summon defendants, over and over again. It was the judge’s contempt authority that backed him, he said. “It’s the only way you can get them into court.”
The power of contempt was originally the power of kings. Under early English rule, monarchs were considered vicars of God, and disobeying them was equivalent to committing a sin. Over time, that contempt authority spread to English courts, and ultimately to American courts, which use it to encourage compliance with the judicial system. There is no law requiring that a court use civil contempt when an order isn’t followed, but judges in the U.S. can choose to, whether it’s to force a defendant to pay child support, for example, or show up at a hearing. A person jailed for defying a court order is generally released when they comply.
When Casement took the bench in 1987, after passing a self-study exam, he didn’t know much legalese — he had never been in a courtroom. But attorneys taught him early on that the power of contempt was available to him to punish people who ignored his orders. At first, Casement could see himself in the defendants. “I was a much more pro-debtor aligned judge, much more sympathetic, much less inclined to do anything that I thought would burden them,” he told me. “And over the years, I’ve gradually moved to the other side of the fulcrum. I still consider myself very much in the middle, and I don’t know if I am or not.”
Once a bustling industrial hub, Coffeyville has a poverty rate that is double the national average, and its county ranks among the least healthy in Kansas. Its red-bricked downtown is lined with empty storefronts — former department stores, restaurants and shops. Its signature hotel is now used for low-income housing. “The two growth industries in Coffeyville,” Hassenplug likes to say, “are health care and funerals.”