30-year-old Melissa Latronica was recently subjected to the brunt of the criminal justice system, all over an ambulance bill from 2014.
Latronica, who lives in Northwestern Indiana, has three kids, and was en route to a county government office to turn in paperwork necessary for her to keep her home in late February. However, a police officer pulled her over and informed her that she needed to put her 2019 registration sticker — which was in her car — on her license plate in order to be in compliance.
Soon, another police car pulled up. A few moments later, the officer asked Latronica to step out of her car and told her there was a warrant out for her arrest. That’s when, according to World Socialist Web Site, Latronica started to panic.
“I was cuffed behind my van, my vehicle was impounded, and I pleaded to them just let me turn in this paperwork, so I didn’t lose my home,” she said. The office was just down the road.
The officer did not look her in the eye and replied indifferently, “Sorry, Ma’am.”
“My kids need me to take them to school,” she pleaded to the officer. “I had no way to afford to get my van back on my own and I couldn’t afford the $1,500 bond.” He replied, “You have three phone calls.”
After suffering a heart attack in 2014 — while she was eight months pregnant with her third child — Latronica’s husband at the time called 911, and an ambulance took her to a hospital to recover. The bill for the ambulance trip was $3,000. After going unpaid for a period of time, the ambulance company put the bills in collection, and the collection agency initiated legal proceedings against Latronica. However, because she never received the court summons (Latronica suspects they were sent to an old address), a bench warrant was issued in December of 2016.
Latronica, who could not pay her $1,569 bond without help from her parents, told the Chicago Tribune that she was “treated like a dog” during the three days she spent in jail. While her mother had the money necessary to bail her out after one day, a snowstorm delayed the opening of the county court system, and Latronica had to wait in jail longer than expected.
“I was in a cell fit for a murderer,” she told the Tribune. “I slept on disgusting mat on a concrete floor in a tiny room, next to a musty water drain that was more like a sewer… served food through a door hole, and showered in an open area with actual felons.”
“I had nothing to do but stare at the four concrete walls and listen to catcalls from felons down the hall, or the vomiting from inmates going through drug withdrawals,” she added. “All this because I failed to pay off an ambulance bill. My crime was having a heart attack.”
Latronica tried to reason with the debt collection agency after she was released, who said she would need to pay at least $1,200 in order to settle the debt. When she told them she had spent three days in jail, collectors told her, “jail doesn’t count.” Latronica told the Tribune that she feels a change to the system is necessary, and that citizens shouldn’t be treated like criminals over medical debt.
“A failure to appear violation for an ambulance bill should not be treated the same as a failure to appear for an actual felony,” Latronica said. “People should not be punished for an outstanding debt over their medical issues or their social status.”
The expensive costs associated with calling an ambulance came to light in 2018, when a woman pleaded with bystanders to not call an ambulance even after after her leg was mangled by a subway train in Boston. Her reason? She couldn’t afford an ambulance bill.
Boston EMS chief Jim Hooley told the Boston Globe that an ambulance trip costs between $1,200 and $1,900.
In response to multiple requests from people asking where they can donate, Melissa Latronica launched a GoFundMe for $4,000. She said she’ll use the funds to pay back her family for bailing her out, and to settle the ambulance bill.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.