The co-founders of RIP Medical Debt buy accumulated medical debt for pennies. (AP: Tony Gutierrez)
Philip Sasser had a familiar, sinking feeling when he saw the yellow envelope in his mailbox. He figured it was another past-due medical bill, but it turned out to be quite the opposite.
- New York’s RIP Medical Debt has erased $674 million over four years
- They buy bulk debt from hospitals and investors from donations
- Donations went from less than $17,000 in 2015 to more than $3.4 million in 2017
“I opened it up and it said these bills had been paid off,” said Mr Sasser.
“I didn’t understand. It was out of the blue.”
The man is among the lucky recipients of a letter from RIP Medical Debt, a Rye, New York-based non-profit that uses money from donors to eliminate crushing medical debt that plagues the American healthcare system.
The charity says it has erased $674 million in debt for more than 250,000 people since it was founded four years ago.
“It’s a random act of kindness, a no-strings-attached gift,” said Craig Antico, RIP’s co-founder and CEO.
Mr Antico and RIP co-founder Jerry Ashton spent decades as executives in the debt resolution business.
Now they do the same thing debt collectors do — buy portfolios of past-due bills for pennies on the dollar.
But instead of hounding people for payment, they send letters announcing their debt is now zero.
Forgiven debts have ranged from $140 to over $355,000, Mr Antico said.
US medical debt pushes $1 trillion
The US’s user-pays healthcare system locks some people out of simple procedures. (US Navy: Joshua Karsten)
A $14 donation can buy — and eliminate — $1,400 in long-delinquent debt.
“You get a lot of bang for your charity buck,” said donor Judith Jones.
She and Carolyn Kenyon, members of a group advocating universal health coverage, raised $17,732 that RIP Medical Debt used to purchase a portfolio of $2.1 million in debts owed by 1,284 people.
Mr Antico and Ashton’s book, End Medical Debt found that more than 43 million Americans have about $106 billion in past-due medical debt on their credit reports.
It estimates a total of $1.4 trillion in reported and unreported unpaid medical debt, and say debt forgiveness is their best interim solution until a better financial structure is worked out for the US health care system.
“We’re not the solution,” Mr Ashton said. “We’re just dealing with the symptoms.”
Now they’re trying to raise over $99,000 for RIP to buy $70 million in medical debts owed by veterans.
For Mr Sasser, the debt relieved was $1,702.50 — not covered by his high-deductible insurance for his wife’s debilitating medical condition she’s been grappling with for six years.
Despite President Barack Obama’s introduction of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, forcing insurance providers to cover pre-existing and specialist health conditions, some Americans simply can’t access the healthcare they need.
At present, President Donald Trump seeks to remove the ACA’s main principles, to allow providers to discriminate based on someone’s health conditions.
RIP Medical Debt a product of Occupy
RIP Medical Debt has its origins in Occupy Wall Street.
When people associated with the Occupy movement launched a project to buy debt and erase it, Mr Ashton and Mr Antico offered their expertise.
They turned that project into RIP Medical Debt in 2014.
It limped along until 2016, when HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did a segment where they gave the non-profit $60,000 to purchase $15 million in medical debt and wipe it out.
Publicity from Mr Oliver’s segment was a game-changer.
Donations went from less than $12,000 in 2015 to more than $2.4 million in 2017.
In addition to individual donations, fundraising campaigns for RIP have been held across the country by health care groups, television stations and other organisations.
In November, an anonymous couple donated $2 million to RIP to eliminate $250 million in medical debt.
Because the non-profit’s model revolves around buying portfolios of bulk debt from hospitals or investors, it is unable, at this point, to abolish bills for specific individuals.
“When we get these emails from people begging us for help, it would melt the heart of a stone statue,” Mr Ashton said.
RIP’s website has a registry where people can sign up in case the charity one day is able to help individual people.
Mr Ashton said there are more than 10,000 names.
“My goal in life is to be able to help people who come to us,” Mr Antico said.