Breast Cancer Survivor Jailed Over Accidental $280 Medical Bill

Breast Cancer Survivor Jailed Over Accidental $280 Medical Bill

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you live in certain U.S. states, like Illinois or Colorado, you can be arrested for not paying your bills; more than 5,000 warrants for arrest were issued for debt-related charges since 2010
  • One recent case involved Lisa Lindsay, an Illinois breast cancer survivor who was imprisoned for a $280 medical bill she didn’t actually owe
  • Many people are struggling financially in the United States not because of lavish lifestyles or irresponsible spending, but because of exorbitant medical bills that can become virtually impossible to pay off; medical bills are actually the most common cause of bankruptcy
  • The healthier you are, the less you will need to rely on conventional medical care, and its often-exorbitant costs; also ask questions before agreeing to medical tests, screenings and procedures, as many are unnecessary

By Dr. Mercola

If you think debtor's prison went by the wayside with the Dark Ages, think again. It's not only alive and well in the 21st century, it's very much a part of everyday debt collecting in a country where you'd never expect it: the United States. And if you think it'll never happen to you, you'd better not get sick.

One-Third of U.S. States Allow Debtors to be Imprisoned

If you can't pay your bills, can you really go to jail? If you live in certain U.S. states, like Illinois or Colorado, yes. According to an analysis by the Wall Street Journal, more than 5,000 warrants for arrest were issued for debt-related charges since 2010.i

Typically, this occurs after a person is sued for an outstanding debt and then fails to attend a court date or make judge-ordered payments.

One recent case involved Lisa Lindsay, an Illinois breast cancer survivor who was imprisoned for a $280 medical bill she didn't actually owe. The bill had been sent to a collection agency by mistake, and she was later arrested at her home and taken to jail by state troopers.

After paying about $600 in charges, the matter was finally settled, but aggressive debt collection tactics like these continue on. An investigative report released by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson recently accused the debt-collection firm Accretive Health, Inc. of overly aggressive tactics, such as imposing quotas on hospital workers to confront emergency-room patients and collect money before they received treatment. The Twin Cities Pioneer Press recently reported:

"Fairview emergency room workers state that they got the message that if they don't collect money in the ER, they would be fired," the report says. "The publication of employee collection tallies was so demeaning that Accretive and Fairview personnel jointly noted the negative impact on staff morale and the marginal impact it had on collection efforts."

In emails released with the report, Accretive workers talked about the need to "get cracking on labor and delivery" and celebrated the launch of a new collection process for breast cancer patients. The report includes a letter from an unnamed Fairview worker who said that patients are "harassed mercilessly"

In the emergency room, Fairview workers became concerned that the focus on patients paying their bills threatened to run afoul of a federal statute that prohibits emergency rooms from dumping patients who can't pay. "Three University of Minnesota physicians complained that patients were foregoing (sic) treatment because of the Accretive collection practices," the report states.

Sadly, many people are struggling financially in the United States not because of lavish lifestyles or irresponsible spending, but because of exorbitant medical bills that can become virtually impossible to pay off.

What's the Number One Reason for Bankruptcy in the United States?

If you guessed medical bills, you're right. In fact, medical bills are the cause of over 62 percent of bankruptcies, up from 46 percent in 2001.ii Most of these "medical debtors" were well educated and had middle-class occupations. Three-quarters of them also had health insurance. Lead author Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., of the Harvard Medical School, told CNN:iii

"Unless you're a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you're one illness away from financial ruin in this country. If an illness is long enough and expensive enough, private insurance offers very little protection against medical bankruptcy, and that's the major finding in our study."

At the time of the study in 2007, medically bankrupt families who had insurance had nearly $18,000 in medical expenses owed, while those without insurance had expenses totaling nearly $27,000. This was just prior to the recession and housing collapse, so it's likely the debt burden is even higher now.

Woolhandler continued:

"That was actually the predominant problem in patients in our study -- 78 percent of them had health insurance, but many of them were bankrupted anyway because there were gaps in their coverage like co-payments and deductibles and uncovered services. Other people had private insurance but got so sick that they lost their job and lost their insurance."

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One in Five U.S. Families Struggling With Medical Bills

A new report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed just how dire things have become for Americans who rely on the conventional health care system. According to data from the first six months of 2011:iv

  • One in five families have difficulty paying medical bills
  • One in four pays medical bills over time
  • One in 10 can't pay medical bills at all

Clearly reform is needed, but much of the talk about health care reform focuses on getting health insurance for Americans. But even the lead author of the CDC report noted:

" … even among people with private insurance, about 16 percent had trouble paying medical bills and 6 percent couldn't pay at all."v

You see, the problem is much deeper than health insurance … In 2008, U.S. health care expenditures continued to skyrocket, growing at an annual rate of 4.4 percent for the year, slower than some recent years, yet still outpacing inflation and the growth of national income. The total spending was about $7,681 per American and accounted for 16.2 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the highest of any industrialized country.

Medically unnecessary procedures, hospitalizations and prescription drugs all contributed to this figure of almost $8,000 per person living in the US. Currently, the U.S. spends more on health care than any other country in the world, but health for many Americans is declining, and oftentimes medical "care" is part of the problem.

The fact is, on your next routine medical checkup, you have a 43 percent chance of undergoing an unnecessary medical test, which can end up costing you significantly in both monetary and emotional resources. As Robert Schwartz, M.D., chairman of the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, told CBS News:vi

"It happens all the time. The patient has no symptoms and doesn't smoke, but he gets a routine chest X-ray. If there is a small shadow, doctors are obligated to look further. That X-ray becomes a CT scan. That may show a small little nodule. The next thing you know, the patient ends up with a cardiothoracic surgeon who wants a needle biopsy, or even an open. In a lot of these cases, he comes up with nothing, a benign nodule or something," he says.

Aside from the costs in time and the potential for unnecessary suffering, these procedures add up to big money."

Collectively, these additional tests cost the U.S. health care system a staggering $700 billion a year, with just three of them – X-rays, CT scans, and biopsies – costing an extra $47 million to $194 million a year.vii What's most disturbing is that these unnecessary tests often lead to even more tests that lead to unnecessary procedures – and even surgeries – that ultimately could cause harm or death.

These unnecessary tests, along with a tragic overuse of medications, are both crippling the American health care system and killing us – literally and figuratively – through its distorted way of addressing symptoms rather than the cause of disease.

How Can You Keep Your Health Care Costs Down?

Since the United States has the most costly medical care system in the world, but ranks 46th in the world in infant mortality and 49th in life expectancy, it's obvious that money doesn't buy health. The answer, then, to better health – and avoiding costly unnecessary tests and procedures, and potential financial ruin from medical debt – lies in taking control of your health. The healthier you are, the less you will need to rely on conventional medical care, which, ironically, is a leading cause of death. So what does a "healthy lifestyle" entail?

  • Proper Food Choices

    For a comprehensive guide on which foods to eat and which to avoid, see my nutrition plan. Generally speaking, you should be looking to focus your diet on whole, unprocessed foods (vegetables, meats, raw dairy, nuts, and so forth) that come from healthy, sustainable, local sources, such as a small organic farm not far from your home.

    For the best nutrition and health benefits, you will want to eat a good portion of your food raw. Personally, I aim to eat about 80-85 percent of my food raw, including pastured raw eggs and humanely raised organic animal products that have not been raised on a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation).

    Nearly as important as knowing which foods to eat more of is knowing which foods to avoid, and topping the list is sugar. Sugar, and fructose in particular, acts as a toxin in and of itself, and as such drive multiple disease processes in your body, not the least of which is insulin resistance, a major cause of accelerated aging.

  • Comprehensive Exercise Program, including High-Intensity Exercise like Peak Fitness

    Even if you're eating the healthiest diet in the world, you still need to exercise to reach the highest levels of health, and you need to be exercising effectively, which means including not only core-strengthening exercises, strength training, and stretching but also high-intensity activities into your rotation. High-intensity interval-type training encourages human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is essential for optimal health, strength and vigor. I've discussed the importance of Peak Fitness for your health on numerous occasions, so for more information, please review this previous article.

  • Stress Reduction and Positive Thinking

    You cannot be optimally healthy if you avoid addressing the emotional component of your health and longevity, as your emotional state plays a role in nearly every physical disease -- from heart disease and depression, to arthritis and cancer. Effective coping mechanisms are a major longevity-promoting factor in part because stress has a direct impact on inflammation, which in turn underlies many of the chronic diseases that kill people prematurely every day.

  • The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), meditation, prayer, social support and exercise are all viable options that can help you maintain emotional and mental equilibrium.

  • Proper Sun Exposure to Optimize Vitamin D

    We have long known that it is best to get your vitamin D from sun exposure, and if at all possible, I strongly urge you to make sure you're getting out in the sun on a daily basis. Vitamin D, and particularly the sulfated form produced through sunlight exposure, plays an important role in preventing numerous illnesses ranging from cancer to the flu.

    The important factor when it comes to vitamin D is your serum level, which should ideally be between 50-70 ng/ml year-round. Sun exposure or a safe tanning bed is the preferred method for optimizing vitamin D levels, but a vitamin D3 supplement can be used. Most adults need about 8,000 IU's of vitamin D a day to achieve serum levels above 40 ng/ml, which is still just below the minimum recommended serum level of 50 ng/ml.

  • High Quality Animal-Based Omega-3 Fats

    Animal-based omega-3 fat like krill oil is a strong factor in helping people live longer, and many experts believe that it is likely a major reason why the Japanese are the longest lived race on the planet.

  • Avoid as Many Chemicals, Toxins, and Pollutants as Possible

    This includes tossing out your toxic household cleaners, soaps, personal hygiene products, air fresheners, bug sprays, lawn pesticides, and insecticides, just to name a few, and replacing them with non-toxic alternatives.

In addition, it's important that you, as a medical consumer, be your own advocate when it comes to health care decisions. You don't have to accept every test or medical procedure your doctor tells you about, you can pick and choose only those you feel are beneficial for your health.

You can help weed out the medical care you actually need from that that may be being recommended because of financial incentives to your provider by doing the following:

  • Asking questions when your doctor orders tests: what is each test for? Who will do the test? Are there any side effects? What if you don't get the test – how necessary is it to your care? Is the test "just to be sure," or is there a proven, scientific reason for doing it?
  • If your doctor wants to do a procedure after the tests come back, ask the same questions all over again, including: Do you have a definitive diagnosis justifying the procedure? Are there any negative effects that I need to know about this procedure? What is the success rate of this procedure? What is the worst-case scenario if we simply don't do it? Are there any less invasive or natural alternatives?
  • If you go ahead with the tests and procedures, and your doctor wants to do a surgery or other type of intervention as a result, ask the same questions once more, and then:
  • Ask, do I NEED these tests/procedures/surgery, or do you simply want them – and if so, for what reasons?

I admit some of these questions seem repetitive. But they NEED to be asked each and every time, for every single test performed on you. Remember, it's not only YOUR decision whether to get any or all of these tests and procedures, but your RIGHT to seek a second opinion somewhere else if you don't feel like you're allowed to be an active participant in your health care decisions.