Why some eastern Idahoans are being served, arrested and sometimes jailed over medical debt
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EDITOR’S NOTE: After EastIdahoNews.com ran a four-part series on medical debt in eastern Idaho last month, we received a tremendous response and additional tips to investigate. The following story is what we have learned about the practice of debtors being served, arrested and sometimes jailed. To read our original series on medical debt and local collection company Medical Recovery Services click here.
IDAHO FALLS — Even though it’s been more than 10 years, Mari Krueger is still furious about what happened a few days after her husband, Steven, had back surgery.
“We had a knock on the door from sheriff deputies,” Krueger said. “They were there to take Steven to the courthouse. They said he’d been ordered by MRS to come in and show up at the courthouse. And that was basically all they said.”
MRS is Medical Recovery Services, an Idaho Falls debt collection company. The company files several thousand lawsuits each year seeking to collect on medical debt in Idaho. In hundreds of these cases, they attach attorney fees, which double or triple the amount of the original debt. Additionally, while the numbers are much smaller, sheriff’s office records show MRS is responsible for requesting a majority of civil arrests in eastern Idaho.
Mari admitted that when the arrest occurred in 2006, they were behind on a lot of medical bills. Both she and her husband had dealt with serious illnesses in the past, and bills had become a significant financial problem. But Mari says she was always on the phone with collection agencies trying to let them know what was going on.
That’s why the couple was stunned when deputies arrived on their doorstep with a civil warrant (also known as a writ of body attachment) from a judge to arrest Steven and bring him to the courthouse immediately. At the time, Steven was recovering from back surgery and his doctor ordered him not to travel, according to Mari.
That didn’t matter. Due to the nature of the warrant, they had to make the trip. Deputies allowed Mari to drive her husband in their own vehicle, and they slowly made their way to the Bonneville County Courthouse and met with an attorney representing MRS.
“He looked quite stunned that Steve (was) in this big back brace thing, they call it a turtle shell, and he was in that moving quite slowly,” Mari said. “The attorney just wrote down on his file, ‘Obviously, you can’t work,’ and … that was the end of it.”
Mari said it was the first and only time either of them has been arrested.
“It was an experience,” Mari said. “It made you feel like a criminal.”
The Kruegers aren’t alone in that perspective. A Blackfoot woman spoke with EastIdahoNews.com on a condition of anonymity because she’s still dealing with MRS.
She was arrested in June 2018 after two deputies from the Bingham County Sheriff’s Office arrived at her home.
“They came in and said ‘We have a warrant for your arrest, and it comes with a body attachment,’ “she said.
The warrant related to a $950 medical bill from years ago. She said she didn’t know anything about the bill until law enforcement showed up at her home. Deputies told her the warrant was for contempt of court.
“They handcuffed me, and they took me down to the jail and put me into booking,” she said. “The officer told me this could take 20 minutes because we have to get a hold of the (MRS) attorney, but sometimes the attorneys won’t get back to us for a few days.”
Ultimately, the deputies were able to get a hold of MRS attorney Bryan Zollinger in short order. He worked out a $20 per month payment plan because the woman didn’t make enough money for her wages to be garnished.
“They faxed a copy of something over to the sheriff’s office and released me to my husband,” she said. “That was the first time I’d ever been to jail in 57 years, and I was terrified. I bawled my eyes out. I was like a baby. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.'”
For others, the experience isn’t as extreme. Other debtors EastIdahoNews.com spoke to describe deputies showing up at their homes with an arrest order and being given the option of either coming with them to jail or getting on the phone with an MRS attorney to work out a payment plan. And once the payment plan is completed, the attorneys give permission for the deputies to leave.
These scenarios aren’t limited to the collection of medical debt, although they account for the majority of cases in eastern Idaho. Sheriff’s offices can be required by a judge to issue civil warrants for outstanding child support, unpaid state fees or any other type of debt.
How does this work?
Civil arrests revolve around a court order called a writ (or warrant) of body attachment.
“We are ordered to take custody of (a) person because they have a debt, and they have failed to comply with a court order,” Bonneville County Sheriff Paule Wilde told EastIdahoNews.com. “The order says, ‘You will attach the body, you will take the body and bring them before the court.'”
These orders differ significantly from criminal cases. When a person has been accused of a crime, law enforcement investigates, finds evidence, and goes to a judge to request an arrest warrant. In a civil case, law enforcement isn’t involved until a judge orders them to go pick up someone. Wilde says typically, deputies aren’t even aware of the details of the case.
That doesn’t mean the process in a civil case is any less complex. Writs of body attachment are one of the final options open to a judge to collect a legitimate debt from a debtor. Others options include the seizure of assets, or placing liens on property to compel payment.
And a judge can’t just issue a writ because someone didn’t pay a bill. A writ is issued because someone has been found in contempt of court for ignoring a court order to make payments on a bill or appear for a hearing.
“What’s happening is these (debt collection) companies are getting a judgment, and then they are generally using the state’s power to then bring criminal contempt charges … against the debtors,” University of Idaho law professor Michael Satz said.
The process starts when a collection agency receives a debt and attempts to collect. If they are unsuccessful, they can sue the debtor, and demand the court issue a default judgment. If the debtor doesn’t show up to court, which Satz says occurs in more than 90 percent of cases, the judge issues the default judgment and the debtor must now pay the debt, plus interest and attorney fees.
Typically, the next step is asking a judge to issue a wage garnishment. But sometimes a debtor makes too little money for wages to be garnished, or a collector cannot locate a place of employment to garnish wages.
In those cases, the collector goes back to the court and essentially says nothing is working.
“When you don’t pay, the creditor can then go to the state and say, ‘They’re not listening to what you said to them, and you need to do something,’ “Satz said. “And the court then has the power to hold the debtor in contempt, and the debtor can be hauled in and brought to jail.”
Satz, who specializes in practiced bankruptcy and consumer finance law, says the practice is pernicious because often people who are struggling can’t afford bail, and they can end up in jail for a significant period of time.
“There’s a couple of problems that come into play there. One, the debtor is in jail and can’t go to work,” he said. “Sometimes the debtor may lose their job because they’ve been taken to jail, even if it’s just for a few days. But a second thing that happens is a debt collector can then use the threat of contempt to coerce more payments to the collector.”
And the debt collector has a great deal of power in these situations. Although a judge might issue a writ of body attachment and set a bond amount, usually around $300, it’s the debt collection attorneys who decide when the writ has been satisfied.
“We’re bringing them before the court and the plaintiff’s attorney so that they can interview them,” Wilde said. “If they complete that over the phone, then the plaintiff’s attorney can release them.”
In the vast majority of cases, eastern Idaho sheriff’s offices say this forced communication between creditor and debtor almost always resolves the issue without jail. Wilde said a person will be jailed if the debtor refuses to talk to the debt collector’s attorney, or if that attorney cannot be immediately reached.
Wilde said although his office executes writs of body attachments with some regularity, most are resolved with a phone call rather than an arrest, and jailing people is rare. The numbers back that up.
By the numbers
Through records requests, EastIdahoNews.com examined writ of body attachments issued between 2016 and 2018 in eastern Idaho’s five most populous counties: Bonneville, Bannock, Bingham, Madison and Jefferson.
The numbers show writs of body attachments are a very small part of the hundreds to thousands of debt collection lawsuits that are filed in these counties each year.
Bonneville County had the most, with 103 writs of body attachment issued between 2016 and 2018. Of those, 92 cases were requested by Medical Recovery Services. Only two cases resulted in jailing, and neither were from MRS.
Bannock County had the second largest number, with 30 civil arrest warrants. Medical Recovery Services requested 19 of those cases. None of the arrest warrants resulted in jailing.
In both Bonneville and Bannock, the majority of the remaining cases were requested by the State of Idaho for child support or various types of business debt. The rest came from other debt collectors, such as Credit Bureau of Eastern Idaho or Diversified Equity Systems.
Bingham County issued seven writs of body attachment, and all of them were from MRS, according to Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland. It’s not known how many resulted in jailing.
Jefferson County had eight writs issued. Four were requested by MRS, three by the state, and one by a trucking company. Of the eight, three resulted in arrest and jail. In each case, the debtor paid the bond the same day and was released.
Madison County has six writs issued. Four were issued by the state, one by MRS and one by the Credit Bureau of Eastern Idaho. Two of the six cases resulted in jailing, although it’s not clear when the debtor bonded out.
The data shows that while a variety of creditors use the court system to issue writ of body attachments, Medical Recovery Services uses this tactic far more than any other company.
In a report released last year, the American Civil Liberties Union determined MRS was responsible for securing the arrests of more debtors statewide than any other collector. Between 2010 and 2016, MRS obtained 345 arrest warrants statewide, which resulted in the jailing of 222 debtors, according to ACLU data.
EastIdahoNews.com could not verify the statewide results of that study, and Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, who represents Medical Recovery Services, claims the ACLU data is inaccurate.
“It is absolutely false to say that 222 people were ‘jailed’ between 2010 and 2016,” Smith wrote in an email. “This is an inflammatory statement by the ACLU to sensationalize its story.”
Smith stressed MRS doesn’t arrest anyone, “but there are some times where an individual repeatedly ignores the orders of judges, and at that point, they are subject to potential arrest. Just like if you ignore a summons for jury duty if the court mandates you appear for a hearing on your case, then there are penalties if you choose not to appear.”
Smith says as few as 10 people have been jailed at the request of MRS in the last five years.
“Of these, some were actually arrested on a pending criminal warrant, and the sheriff’s office simply notified (MRS attorneys) that the person was in custody on an unrelated pending criminal charge,” Smith wrote.
Despite the relatively small numbers, though, people that go through the ordeal still have great concerns about why it’s allowed.
Debt collection reform in Idaho?
Mari Krueger said her husband’s arrest for the medical debt left her feeling bullied and belittled.
“We left there fuming mad and every time I came in to make payments or even had to drive there, I would just get so upset with anxiety and anger because of the way (MRS) continued to treat us like we were common criminals,” she said.
Krueger arranged a $25 a month payment to prevent the same thing from happening again. Her husband, Steven, passed away in 2017, but before he died, Mari and Steven were forced to file for bankruptcy.
“We couldn’t do anything. Our wages were garnished, and we were fighting to stay afloat, but we couldn’t keep up,” she said. “It makes me so angry because we were trying our hardest, but there were just so many medical bills, it couldn’t be helped.”
She’d very much like to see some kind of reform in debt collection laws in Idaho and within the entire medical billing industry.
But that’s an uphill battle.
“It’s an extremely heavy lift to get those laws passed because the same entities that are making a profit off these actions are also paying for lobbyists to go and basically give them a much stronger voice than the citizens,” said Satz, the law professor.
In the case of Medical Recovery Services, Zollinger, one of their attorneys, serves in the Idaho House, which Satz said creates a significant barrier for anyone advocating for reform.
But it is something that can happen — if enough citizens talk to their legislators about it.
“One of the real problems with placing debtors in jail and placing people in jail based on debt is that it runs contrary to the founding of this nation, Satz said. “There is no reason why a legislator can’t decide … this is a serious, different thing, and we’re going to look at it differently.”
To learn more about Frank VanderSloot’s efforts to help people dealing with medical debt collectors visit the Idaho Medical Debt site.
To learn more about this issue, read prior coverage at EastIdahoNews.com.