‘A bombshell investigation from ProPublica revealed that law enforcement in Kansas is running a debtor’s prison and throwing people in jail over their medical debt. The story focused on the case of Tres and Heather Biggs who fell behind on their medical bills for their son’s leukemia and Heather’s Lyme disease. What happened next was nothing but sheer tyranny.
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.
This family’s nightmare began last year when they fell behind on their medical bills from Heather and her son’s conditions. Instead of simply being turned over to a collection agency, in Coffeyville, Kansas, the government joins in.
“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 Biggs said. “It would have made no sense. We would have had to have not eaten, not had a home.”
Because they had unpaid medical debt, the apparently corrupt court system issued them a summons to appear in court. ProPublica reports that they were one of 90 people facing similar legal action in just a single month.
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.
“You wouldn’t think you’d go to jail over medical bills,” Tres Biggs said. But they do.’