America — land of the fee

The recent report of a woman arrested over an unpaid medical bill highlights fundamental and disturbing differences between the US and the UK, in both the medical and legal fields.

An article by a barrister published in the now long defunct Daily Herald of February 24, 1961 reported that 100 people a week were gaoled for debt in 1959, including (recently) a widow with five children. 5,355 English debtors were sent to prison.

The March 4 issue reported that a man was arrested by bailiffs and gaoled over a debt without his wife being informed. She called in the police. Likewise, a Mrs Lydia Bell, was gaoled over a debt of £4.11s without her family being informed.

Our ancestors had it much worse of course, but people are no longer thrown into gaol in Britain over civil debts. It shouldn’t happen in America either, but it is, the recent report of a woman arrested over an unpaid medical bill is surely as bad an advertisement for the land of the fee - sorry, free - as it is for the American medical profession.

To see how debts are chased legally in Britain, check out the latter day sheriffs.

The BBC Panorama programme on poverty in America screened in February contained many harrowing sights and stories, none more than that of the far from young homeless man who was walking around in desperate need of surgery for a hernia. His intestines were literally hanging out, and without an operation - that would have cost well into 5 figures - he was at risk from infection, not to mention the constant pain he was in. That shameful situation would never happen in Britain, nor would a woman have been arrested for non-payment of a medical bill, because unless she elected to “go private”, most treatments of that nature, including screening, are free at the point of use. The Government realises that for some services, the tragedy of the commons does not apply, and to charge people at the point of service is a false economy. All that happens is that poor people especially pay less attention to their health and welfare than they should, and this ends up costing the state a lot more in the long or even medium term

The US - all its states - must stop using the criminal law to persecute debtors. In view of the countless billions the banks have plundered from the country, this is grossly immoral. Also, whether or not people like the reforms Obama is trying to force through, something must be done about both the healthcare of the very poor, and the crippling medical bills that at times reduce even the relatively well off to abject poverty. To reform this dreadful system is not socialism as so many claim. As Anatole France put it: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

[The above op-ed was first published April 24, 2012; the original wasn’t archived.]

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