How Can Medical Debt be a Crime?

Recently I read this report published by the ACLU. The report describes the growing number of states issuing arrest warrants on behalf of private collection agencies. This practice is against the law in many of the states where it occurs. The stories of people arrested and imprisoned because of their inability to pay their bills are simply heartbreaking.

Simply put: NO ONE should ever go to jail because they are poor or unable to pay.


The number one reason for bankruptcy in the United States is medical debt and the ancillary debt that accompanies it. Let's face it – debt is big business. According to the ACLU, one in three adults in the United States has a debt that has been turned over to a private collection company.

Our family struggled with medical and ancillary debt for many years. We endured 16 separate medical crises with a chronically ill child, plus work and farm related accidents. With a lot of hard work we paid our way out time and time again. We were able to pay our way out by living meagerly, taking extra jobs, selling off property and doing without. And still, we were luckier than many – not everyone has those options.

Debt collectors are merciless. Quoting the ACLU again, “The private debt collection industry uses prosecutors and judges as weapons against millions of Americans who can’t afford to pay their bills.” By connecting debt to employment applications, applicants are further hindered in being able to pay down their debt. By refusing to accept an affordable repayment program these cases end up in the court system, costing taxpayers money.

The stories in this article strike close to home. While we have paid off all of our debts from medical and ancillary, I remember those terrifying phone calls threatening arrest because I owed a bill related to my child or husband being ill. Seriously, who does that?

To this day, there is horrible terminology on my "record" that describes my previous debt load – terminology designed to make me sound like a criminal, to pigeonhole me and hold me "in my place." What it really means is that we struggled mightily not just when our son was ill or my husband was injured, but financially after the fact. It seemed like the pain went on forever.

A medical crisis should never be followed by a financial crisis! It's difficult to move forward when you are hemmed in by debt and no person should be labeled a criminal for owing money. And certainly arrest and jail and misuse of taxpayer dollars as a private debt collection process is WRONG.