“I have to work two jobs just to try to make ends meet,” said Robin Kerr, 55, of Norfolk, a city of about 24,000 in northeastern Nebraska. Kerr has been sued four times, three times by CMS, and in each case, the agency sought to seize a chunk of her wages at Burger King.
Most of the suits we reviewed sought less than $700, and 40 sought less than $500. Four of the suits, all filed by CMS, were for under $100. In one case, a $66 chiropractic bill transformed into a $275 court judgment after court costs, attorney fees, and interest were tacked on.
The vast majority of suits were over unpaid medical bills: The providers ranged from rural hospitals to the largest in the state, from specialists to family doctors. Debts from multiple providers were often combined in the same suit, even bundled with non-medical bills.
The suits sometimes came quickly, in some cases only three months after the provider sent the patient a bill. That speed is in contrast to recent national reforms meant to protect consumers from being penalized for medical billing errors. Last year, the three main credit reporting agencies announced a new 180-day waiting period from the time a medical account is created until it can appear on a patient’s credit report as in collections.
But in Nebraska, said legal-aid attorneys, once an account is sent to a collection agency, the patient has little hope of sorting out a billing issue. Instead, collection agencies often give them the option of paying in full or facing a lawsuit, they said.
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Tanya Glasgow, 39, has had health problems for years, at one point requiring surgery to remove her gall bladder and recently suffering from epileptic seizures. Making matters worse, she’s gone for stretches without health insurance, which she’s struggled to afford. She has two teenagers at home and a third child in college and works the graveyard shift at a nursing home for $18.50 an hour.
Glasgow’s tried various strategies for dealing with her medical debt, which she estimates at about $20,000, but any plan can suddenly fall apart. “I’m paying on three of them and then the fourth one sues me,” she said. She’s been sued five times, four by CMS.
The worst blow came last fall. CMS had filed its third suit, a bundle of radiology and emergency room bills, for over $1,000. A week after obtaining a judgment, CMS moved to garnish her pay. But the same day, CMS also filed to seize funds from her bank account.
The action froze Glasgow’s account and secured the entirety of what she owed under the judgment, $1,315. But because it took several weeks for CMS to actually receive that money through the court, CMS allowed the garnishment of her wages to continue.
Glasgow said she struggled for two weeks to put food on the table. But when her paycheck arrived, it was short $226, because CMS had taken money she no longer owed. CMS garnished her next paycheck, too, before the case was finally closed.