Key Takeaways

When you have unpaid medical bills, your lenders can take legal action against you. But you can’t go to jail unless you fail to show up in court or do not make court-ordered payments on your medical debt. Read on to learn more about what to do about unpaid medical bills and how to avoid jail.

Introduction to Unpaid Medical Bills and Jail Time

Having large medical bills can be a burden, especially when you don’t have health insurance. Even if you have coverage, your insurance company will not cover the full bill. Unpaid medical bills affect millions of Americans. There were $88 billion in medical bills in debt collection in 2022.

But can you go to jail for not paying medical bills? If you are worried about the possibility of going to jail over an unsettled medical bill, it’s important to understand that there are many things you can do to avoid jail time, such as showing up in court when needed and taking action to settle your account.

What are Unpaid Medical Bills?

Unpaid medical bills are bills from doctors, hospitals, dentists, or any other healthcare professional or facility that you have failed to pay. It can also include bills that are past due, in collections, or delinquent. One of the biggest reasons for unpaid medical bills in the country is the lack of insurance coverage. Only 19% of households in the U.S. can afford to pay their medical bills right away.   

Medical debt is, unfortunately, quite common in the country. Whether it is because you don’t have coverage through your employer, have high deductibles, or are self-employed and don’t have insurance, medical bills can quickly become unmanageable.   

Legal Consequences of Unpaid Medical Bills

The longer you wait to pay off your medical bills, the worse the situation can get. The first thing a lender will do is add penalty fees to your outstanding bills. These can add up quickly and increase your total outstanding amount. If you fail to pay for three months or longer, your debt may go into collections.

You may be sued for unpaid medical bills. The court may order a judgment against you, and this can result in wage garnishment or a lien on your assets. If you have no assets or income that can be garnished, you may be asked to appear in court. If you fail to appear in court, or if you are in contempt of the court, you may be arrested in some states. So while you can’t technically be arrested for owing a debt, you can be arrested for being in contempt of court due to the debt.   

Cases of Jail Time for Unpaid Medical Bills

Understanding how unpaid medical bills can lead to jail time is the best way to avoid it. You can’t be arrested just because you failed to pay your medical bills on time. Owing a debt, whether it is medical debt, credit card debt, or any other type of debt, is not a reason why you can be arrested.

But if your lenders sue you in civil court, it could indirectly lead to jail time if you disobey a court order. This is known as contempt of court, and it can lead to jail time in two scenarios:

  1. You fail to show up in court for your court date.
  2. You do not make court-ordered payments on your debt.

A specific example of this is from Coffeyville, Kansas, where dozens of patients were sent to jail. The patients were asked to appear in court every three months for a “debtor’s examination.” When two hearings were missed, an arrest warrant was issued for contempt of court. Dozens of Coffeyville citizens were sent to jail when they failed to appear in court for their debt exams.  

Teresa Dodson, debt relief expert and founder of Greenbacks Consulting shares the following take on jail and medical debt:

“The important takeaway is once you agree to the terms of any payment arrangement and or judgment for any debt, you must stick to the payments and fulfill your obligation,” Dodson explains.

Understanding the Risks of Unpaid Medical Debt

While it’s unlikely that you’ll go to jail because of medical debt, there are several consequences that you should be prepared for, as listed below:

  • Your lenders will charge you fees and penalties for unpaid bills.
  • Unpaid medical bills may hurt your credit scores, even though credit bureaus have several measures in place to minimize the impact of medical debt on credit reports.
  • If your debt goes to a collection agency, they may call you and pressure you into paying your outstanding debt.
  • Your lender may take legal action, and this may result in wage garnishment or levies.

States Where You Can Go to Jail for Debt

The laws in each state vary, but if you reside in certain states, you can go to jail. Again, this is not directly because of owing a debt but due to contempt of court. Here are the states where you can go to jail:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

How to Avoid Going to Jail Because of Medical Debt

Now that you understand more about unpaid medical bills and potential jail sentences, let’s talk about how you can avoid this situation. Here are a few tips to follow:

  • Know your rights as a borrower. Lenders and debt collectors cannot legally threaten you with prison because they can’t enforce that. Other than a judge, nobody can sentence you.
  • If a lender has sued you, respond to it on time. Do not ignore it.
  • If you are summoned, do not fail to show up at the hearing.
  • If the court has ordered you to pay off a debt, you must obey the court order.  

Dealing with Unpaid Medical Bills

If you large medical bills and are unable to pay them, it may be time to seek medical debt relief. There are several things you can do to deal with your debt to ensure that your lender doesn’t take legal action against you.

Communicating with Medical Providers

Talk to your medical providers and explain your situation. Many hospitals, physicians, and dentists can offer no-interest or low interest payment plans to make debt repayment easier. Negotiate the terms and talk to them about how much you can afford as monthly payments.

You can also negotiate with them to waive billing charges or any fees on your medical bills to make them more affordable. Many healthcare providers and hospitals may also have income-driven hardship plans. If you have low income, high medical bills, or are facing financial hardship, you may qualify for financial assistance.  

Seeking Legal Assistance

If you are facing legal action or think your lenders may sue you, it’s best to seek legal assistance at the earliest. Talk to a medical bill lawyer who is knowledgeable about the regulations surrounding medical debt collections. Other than tackling any errors on your bills, a lawyer can also negotiate on your behalf with collection agencies.

Exploring Alternative Options

Having large outstanding medical bills can be stressful and distressing. There are a number of alternative options available to tackle your debt.

Debt Settlement

Consider working with a professional to settle your medical debts. With debt settlement, you can negotiate with your lenders to accept a lump sum settlement amount that is less than what you currently owe. If they accept the settlement, the remaining amount will be forgiven. Ideally, you should start the process at the earliest to avoid legal action.  

Debt Consolidation

If you have a good credit score and a lot of medical bills, consider debt consolidation. This can be done through a 0% APR credit card or a low-interest personal loan. You can use the funds to pay off your medical bills. You’ll then have a single, affordable payment each month.

If you opt for a 0% balance transfer credit card, it is important to remember that the introductory 0% APR is only available for a predetermined time frame. You’ll need to pay off your balance during that period to avoid high interest charges.

Credit Counseling

Another option to consider is credit counseling. Work with a credit counselor or a medical debt advocate to help navigate your situation better. A counselor can review your bills, budget, and your overall financial situation to help you create a personalized repayment plan.

They can also enroll you in a debt management plan to help you pay off your bills quickly and in a cost-effective manner. Credit counseling is offered by several non-profit agencies and is available free or at a very low cost.


If no other options work, bankruptcy is the last resort. Medical bills are a form of unsecured debt so they may be eliminated through bankruptcy. There are two main forms of bankruptcy- Chapter 7 and Chapter 13.

A bankruptcy lawyer can help you determine if bankruptcy is right for you. It is important to remember that bankruptcy can be expensive, is permanent, and has serious long-term implications. It should only be considered if you have exhausted all other options.     

Wrapping Up

Can you go to jail for not paying medical bills? The short answer is no, but it’s important to remember that you may face arrest if you fail to comply with court orders depending on whether your state has a debtor’s prison. Know your rights as a borrower and learn more about the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Keep a copy of your medical records, and always seek legal advice if a lender sues you.

Settling a debt is easier and a better option than ignoring hearings and court orders. If you have over $10k in debt, it is best to consider debt settlement to pay off your debt sooner. At TurboDebt, we can help you resolve your medical debt. Connect with us for a free consultation today. Our team will be happy to help you find the right debt relief option to resolve your financial challenges.