Occupy Wall Street Inspires Ongoing Campaign to End Medical Debt

Interview with Jerry Ashton, co-author, "End Medical Debt: Curing America's $1 Trillion Unpayable Healthcare Debt," conducted by Scott Harris

Americans rack up more than $100 billion in unpaid medical debt every year. According to a CNBC report, medical debt has been the leading cause of American bankruptcy for many years. The report found that unpaid medical bills affect the finances of two million people annually. In fact,an estimated 56 million adults will feel the negative fallout from unpaid medical expenses, which amounts to more than 20 percent of the American population between the ages of 19 and 64. Additionally, unpaid medical debt negatively affects the doctor-patient relationship, causing many patients to forego needed care, which often worsens their condition requiring more expensive treatment.
Inspired by Occupy Wall Street activists who captured the imagination of millions in 2011 for confronting rising inequality in the U.S., two veterans of the financial services industry, Jerry Ashton and Craig Antico founded the group RIP Medical Debt. The project first gained national attention in 2016 when HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” worked with the charity to abolish $15 million in medical debt.  The nonprofit charity has, since its founding in 2014, abolished $120 million in medical debt for about 60,000 Americans.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jerry Ashton, who along with co-authors Robert Goff and Craig Antico, wrote the new book, “End Medical Debt: Curing America’s $1 Trillion Unpayable Healthcare Debt.” Here, Ashton talks about RIP Medical Debt’s mission to buy and forgive medical debt on behalf of individual donors, philanthropists and organizations.

JERRY ASHTON: As people who are professionals in the debt industry, we were a known quantity – debt buyers and collection agency people are pretty bummed. Nobody really talks about what they do or how they do it. In fact, the less publicity the better for them. But they do have a market, a huge market, financed by banks on debt buyers will go to hospitals and about 30 percent of all hospitals will participate. They’ll go to the CFO and they’ll say, “Well, I see you have $100 million worth of debt there that’s just sitting in your files. A hundred million dollars doing nothing for you. I’ll give you five cents on the dollar.”

Now, from a pure business point of view, getting $5 million of something over $100 million of nothing is a compelling business case, so hospitals will sell that debt. The sad thing is that once the debt buyer owns that debt, they own it in its entirety, so that when they pick up the phone or they’re sending out letters or they’re setting up lawsuits, it’s for the full amount owed, not for what they paid for it. So they got a $5,000 bill you owe, which they paid $250 for it. They’re going to go after you for that $5,000.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You turned this whole business enterprise on its head by organizing contributions to buy people’s debt for pennies on the dollar. So the next question I have is, how did you select people who are going to benefit from this largesse, from this gift of debt forgiveness?

JERRY ASHTON: As a charity, we have a criteria that has to be met in order for someone to truly be considered a charitable case: a needy person and they can be in one of these three categories, or all three. Number one, that they are two times the poverty level or below. The second would be that they are insolvent, being that assets are less than their debt. Or they could be in what the government calls hardship, where they’re spending five percent or more of their annual income out of pocket to cover medical expenses. So those are the three criteria that we use when we do our analytics to determine who is going to be receiving our charity.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jerry, how have you collected contributions to pay for this debt and to allow for debt forgiveness for so many people? As I’ve read it, your group has helped over 250,000 people so far get freedom from their debt. How have you attracted contributions for that purpose?

JERRY ASHTON: It wasn’t easy because when we first started out with the Rolling Jubilee, there were many people that were more than willing to donate money to abolish debt. Just on the face of it, it was contrarian. It spoke to a need that wasn’t being met. So they had pretty decent influx of money. So when we stepped into it, we didn’t have the cache of being “occupiers”; we were just a couple of former bill collectors who wanted to continue a good thing.

So we struggled until John Oliver came along. When he did that show at the very end of his five minutes, he said, “We’re going to be donating this debt to RIP Medical Debt.” And our logo appears above us, his right shoulder. And he says, “Because of their 501(c)(3) status, this debt will be abolished and no tax consequences to the recipient.” And he gets up and he hits the big red button. When he comes down from the ceiling, our website crashes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: That’s great. So donations poured in after that point?

JERRY ASHTON: They poured in and we have a saying, “You know, if they don’t know about you, they can’t do anything about you.” So what he did was to give us the first national exposure and from that point on, that’s when we attracted people who came to us and said, “I like what you’re doing. I want to help support it.” And we have individuals and organizations that pony up so much money every year to cover our overhead so that money that comes in by way of donations – goes directly to the purchasing abolition of that debt.

Our goal is to abolish a billion dollars in medical debt. Now, that was pretty brash, we thought, when we came up with it in 2014. It’s gone by the time Dec. 31 rolls around; we probably will go over the half billion mark and then we would like to imagine that next year we’re going to finish off the other half billion and meet our goal. And then we got to rethink our petty, little thinking (chuckles) and start getting big.

For more information on RIP Medical Debt, visit ripmedicaldebt.org.

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