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For some, a bitter remedy for overdue medical, dental bills

When Marcy Armington objected to her obstetrician's bill, believing her health insurance should cover the $300 balance due for the birth of her daughter, she had no idea that such a common dispute would leave her vulnerable to the ''The Hubbard Law Office Experience.''

That would be attorney Richard R. Hubbard of Uxbridge. Hubbard sued Armington on behalf of Dr. Thomas A. Spina of Hopedale - though the suit listed the wrong address, so she knew nothing about it. Last March, two Worcester County sheriff's deputies came to her Milford home to take her car. To keep it, Armington had to pay $983, to cover the $383 court judgment and the $600 sheriff's fee.

Across Massachusetts, the Globe Spotlight Team found that a handful of debt collectors have had thousands of cars seized from debtors, with the constables and deputy sheriffs who do the work most often adding $600 to $900 to what the debtor owes. In the bulk of those cases, however, the seizures are for credit card debts that are typically $1,500 or more.

Hubbard occupies a different niche: His clients include small oil delivery companies, as well as doctors and dentists, who hire him to sue their patients for amounts that are often less than $500. And Hubbard, according to sheriffs' records, resorts to car seizures to force the debtors to pay amounts that can be three times the original bill because of seizure and towing fees.

Hubbard advertises his aggressive approach on his website (www.richardhubbardlaw.com): ''Debtors receive the Hubbard Law Office Experience when we collect your past due accounts and judgments by seizing the debtors' bank accounts and automobiles and attaching the debtors' wages. When appropriate, we also request that the court find disobedient debtors in contempt of court and request incarceration at the House of Correction.''

Hubbard, in a telephone interview, acknowledged that he has had some debtors arrested, but declined to say how many. Asked about using car seizures as a collection tactic for doctors and dentists, Hubbard said: ''I'm not excited about seizing a car for a $500 balance. But I know that a $500 balance is something most people can find the money to pay. So why not?'' After that interview, Hubbard refused to respond to questions about any of his cases.

Spina declined to be interviewed. But Dr. Dwight K. Stowell, a dentist with offices in Ayer, Gardner, and Orange, said that for the last several years, he has been referring accounts to Hubbard after they go unpaid for three months. Hubbard's collection rate, he said, is noticeably higher than other collection agencies.

A search of court records in district courts in central Massachusetts found at least 223 lawsuits that have been filed against Stowell's patients in the last several years. In 2005, Hubbard had cars seized from six of Stowell's patients in Worcester County alone. Stowell, however, said he did not know Hubbard was seizing vehicles, although he added: ''I can't play dumb. I assume he's been using all the tools at his fingertips.''

''I feel badly about these people,'' Stowell said. Hubbard, he said, ''has to make a living too. But he shouldn't be destroying these families along the way. ..... Whether what he is doing is ethical, I don't know.''

As for the sheriff's $600 seizure fee, Stowell said: ''That is a rip-off.''

But with such a large practice, Stowell said, he has to pursue patients who do not pay. ''I could stand back and not collect my bills,'' he said. ''But I have close to 50 employees, and they expect to be paid every week.''

Dr. Robert A. Faiella, the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Dental Society, said he was stunned to learn that some dentists have patients' cars seized to collect on bills. ''I don't know anyone in the profession who has ever done anything like that,'' Faiella said. ''It seems heavy-handed, especially for an amount less than $1,000.''

Faiella added: ''It's not a very palatable way to handle the business side of your practice. And it sure doesn't seem like a practice builder to me.''

Richard P. Gulla, the spokesman for the Massachusetts Medical Society, said that the use of auto seizures by physicians to collect on relatively small accounts ''appears contrary to our principles and not a reasonable way to enhance the physician-patient relationship.''

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