Ellie — who prefers that her last name not be used — doesn’t even have what most people would consider astronomical medical debt. She and her partner owe about $19,000, and she needs another $5,000 to $7,000 in additional treatment as the result of years of illness and a tumor that was successfully removed.
“If I cannot continue treatment, I will spend the rest of my life in excruciating pain every time I go to the bathroom,” the 29-year-old said. “I will be constantly plagued with nausea, kidney problems and bladder problems. Eventually I will need a permanent catheter, and I’ll have to quit working altogether, as the problem only gets worse.”
Ellie, who works in retail, raised about $6,000 through a GoFund-Me campaign, an increasingly common way for people saddled with medical debt to find some relief. She doesn’t live in Arkansas and so would not be eligible for a completely different kind of campaign created in January by All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Bentonville. But the idea of having her medical debt suddenly erased would mean “we would finally feel free,” she said.
According to federal data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Ellie’s problem is a common one. Annual medical expenses for the United States totaled about $3.8 trillion in 2018, and in 2019, medical problems contributed to 66.5% of all bankruptcies, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Compounding the problem is the pandemic, which has left millions of people uninsured through job loss.
“When the announcement was made [in November] about $10,000 grants being available to recruit entrepreneurs and artists to Northwest Arkansas, there was a fair amount of commentary on social media,” remembers the Rev. Sara Milford, vicar of All Saints’ Episcopal Church. “One person asked Northwest Arkansas residents what they would do if they received $10,000, and several of the [responders] said they would use the money to pay off medical debt so they could finally buy a house or get a better car.
“I knew medical debt was an issue, but not until I saw the numbers did I realize how dire the situation is for many Arkansans, even with expanded health care.”
Milford points out that even with increased Medicaid programs, in 2017 Arkansas had the second highest percentage of adults ages 18 to 64 with past-due medical debt in the United States.
“Adding the pandemic to poverty here in Northwest Arkansas — and across the state — has increased the financial nightmare many families are facing, realized in food bank lines, eviction notices, and the unemployment office,” she says. “The stress is unbearable. Now is the time to do something; we can’t wait for legislation because families need relief now. This isn’t the entire solution by any means, but if it can help in the meantime, let’s do it while we continue to advocate for the changes we need.”
Milford first heard of RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 in New York, through a colleague in Birmingham, Ala. The church there raised money to pay off some $8 million in medical debt — and Milford wondered what Arkansans could do if the whole state got involved.
The campaign’s goal is to raise $172,000, which will eliminate $24 million of medical debt in Arkansas eligible for relief. Every dollar donated to the church campaign pays off at least $100 in medical debt. Jane Lee, RIP associate director of development, explained how the process works.
“RIP buys medical debts either on the secondary debt market — from debt buyers and collection agencies who own certain debts purchased from doctors and hospitals — or directly from hospitals and doctors,” she said. “These accounts are purchased in massive portfolios for a fraction of their face value, which is why on average $1 donated to RIP can relieve $100 of medical debt.”
RIP buys only certain kinds of medical debt — past-due accounts belonging to individuals who earn less than double the federal poverty level, are insolvent and/ or have debts that are 5% or more of their gross annual income.
“ We partner with TransUnion, one of the big three credit reporting agencies, to ensure we’re purchasing only those qualifying medical debts,” Lee said. “Then, once we have the debts in our possession, we report them as paid in full and send a letter to the debtor letting them know that their specific debt or debts are paid off and can no longer be collected on.”
According to Lee, anyone can partner with RIP on a local debt relief campaign. “The only prerequisite is ensuring that RIP has enough qualifying medical debt in the area of interest for the campaign,” she said. “In general, it can take from six to eight weeks to conceptualize a campaign and then have the relief letters landing in an area.”
In 2019, City Church of Russellville signed up with RIP and eliminated $3 million in medical debt for nearly 1,600 debtors in Pope, Johnson and Conway counties — and the average relief brought to individual families was about $1,800, much like Ellie’s situation. Were she eligible for an RIP Medical Debt campaign in her state, it would cost just $190 to pay off her existing bill.
“The last six months have been nothing if not suffocating,” Ellie said. “Every free dime has had to go to bills to continue to receive treatment from my doctors. It’s hard for me to say exactly what it would mean to me and my family, but it would truly change our lives so much for the better. It would also mean that we aren’t spending the coming years trying to pay all of this off.”
“Empowering our community is done by community — neighbors helping neighbors,” Milford said. “If we can do something to help each other quickly, without legislation, then let’s do it. If we can meet our goal within four months, then come Easter we will have another reason to celebrate and give thanks.”
All Saints’ Episcopal Church Medical Debt Campaign Online: https://secure.qgiv.com/event/arkansasdebtrelief Mail a check to: RIP Medical Debt 80 Theodore Fremd Ave. Rye, N.Y. 10580
Earmark your donation by including a note or by writing “Arkansas Medical Debt Relief Campaign” in the memo line of a check.