"You got a minute?" James asked.
"Sure," I said as I pulled a chair over beside me. "Sit down. What's going on?"
He sat. The boy looked like Hell's gate. He looked up at the ceiling. He then leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. I did so likewise. I looked up into his face.
"Talk to me," I said.
"A process server came to my house last night. I got served at work (he whispered the latter) last week. Can you tell me the difference between Chapter 13 and Chapter 7? I've got an appointment with a lawyer this afternoon but I want to get an idea from you first. I'm kinda nervous."
"Of course I can. You buying or renting?"
"Renting. All we own are our cars."
Driving and wearing their assets as the saying goes.
" My wife, she had a tough pregnancy and the baby was premature. We didn't have insurance. The one that served me last night was the anesthesiologist."
" Does your wife work?"
" No. She's gone back to get her Masters. That means we have to pay for day care on top of every thing else."
I asked him how much they owed. I have heard worse in my day. No credit card debt to speak of. Virtually all the unsecured debt was high two figures in medical bills. But still this was more than a single income family could pay.
He put his head in his hands.
"James," I said. "It sounds like you need to be in a 7. That's a straight throw in the towel liquidation."
"What will happen?"
"The Automatic Stay goes out. The lawsuits stop. The phone quits ringing."
"We don't answer the phone anymore anyway," he said with a rueful smile.
" Well, once you file you can start. Anyway, you will set out your debts in what's called the schedules and then you will get a discharge of your debts about a month later. That means that the debts are no longer enforceable against you personally."
"I hate this," he said. "I've always paid my bills."
"You can't pay this," I said. "Medical bills and divorce are the typical reasons that people have to file. It's not like you ran up a bunch of credit cards going out to eat and buying stuff. You need to give yourself some peace. Who are you seeing this afternoon?"
He told me. Guy named Larry.
"Larry is a good lawyer and a good guy. We go back a long way. If I were going to file I would go to Larry."
James relaxed for the first time during the conversation. He smiled.
"Really?" he said. "That makes me feel better."
"Really. Now you listen to me. You need to find you some health insurance. Like, tomorrow."
"I can't afford it."
I'm generally pretty poker faced. But I suppose my demeanor changed as James' face grew noticeably ashen.
"I can't believe this shit," I stage whispered. " You can't afford it? Your lack of health insurance is what put you in bankruptcy. You are about to get a discharge of your debts and a fresh start only to keep playing with fire? That's just stupid."
"You're goddamn skippy I'm right," I said. "Here's the deal. Before you can get your discharge you and your wife will have to pass an online personal finance course. I want you to get some quotes on a premium and factor that into the budget they will make you put together. Put it right up there with the rent as a monthly expense. Then have it taken out of your check as if it never existed in the first place. I don't want you to get in this fix again. Because you can't file another bankruptcy for 7 years."
"OK," he said. "I will."
"You better is all I'm saying."
He sat for a minute. Finally he spoke.
"I can't believe this," he said. "I'm not a deadbeat."
"I know you're not," I replied. "And you are not the only one in your boat. It is a national crisis. You can't pay this. You need to get on with your life."
He thanked me for my time and left for his appointment with his lawyer.
When I practiced law I used to look at the Schedules filed by Debtors in the millions of bankruptcies that I handled. Sure, you had your deadbeats. Your credit card millionaires. But a high number of them were caused by medical bills. And even some of the credit card debtors were not as imprudent as it looked at first blush.
Let's say you live somewhere out in the sticks and you have an infant that needs open heart surgery. The doctor tells you that the baby will be in the hospital for 6 weeks. Well, you can't leave the baby here in Little Rock. And if you don't know anybody here you have to stay in a hotel. And you use a credit card. Because you don't have enough money to stay in a hotel and you can't leave the baby. Poor folks have poor ways as the saying goes. Caring for a critically ill baby is not an extravagance. But some folks are working without a net.
It is a scene played out every single day across the country. Medical emergency with no insurance creates a crushing debt load. The completely leveraged patient has to file bankruptcy to keep the providers from garnisheeing his pay check but he ruins his credit score in the process. He gets the Discharge which means the providers write off the bills as uncollectable debt. And hospitals across the country hemorrhage red ink.
So somebody tell me again why universal health coverage is such a bad idea. Somebody remind me why this is the way to run the railroad.
I ran into James yesterday. Larry pretty much agreed with my take on it. James and his wife will start gathering the information so that the lawyer can't get something filed here in a week or so. He's not thrilled by all of this but at least he can see a way out.
But really, somebody tell me why everybody having health insurance is such a bad idea.