Want to Give a Gift That Helps? How About Forgiving Medical Debt

A nonprofit helps people in need by purchasing bundles of past-due medical bills and forgiving them.

If you’re looking for a special Christmas gift to mark this holiday season, you could follow in the footsteps of two women in upstate New York, a man who lost his wife to cancer, and a well-known television host.

All of them donated money to RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that helps people in need by purchasing bundles of past-due medical bills and forgiving them.

RIP Medical Debt is one of multiple organizations across the country hoping to help people with crushing medical costs. Other organizations allow people to make charitable donations so patients can afford expensive care.

How to cancel medical debt

RIP Medical Debt may be best known from a segment that John Oliver did in 2016 on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” During the show, Oliver paid $60,000 to forgive over $14.9 million in medical debt through the organization.

According to its website, the organization has helped donors forgive over $468 million in medical debt. But it says this is just a fraction of the $750 billion in medical debt that Americans owe.

“We’re a drop in the bucket,” admits board director Robert Goff.

The organization focuses on buying the debt of people with low incomes or financial hardships.

Because the organization buys medical debt for pennies on the dollar, “people with a small amount of money can have a big impact in their community,” said Goff.

Two women in upstate New York recently raised $12,500, which translated to $1.5 million of medical debt erased, according to the New York Times.

Goff said one man also donated the proceeds of his wife’s life insurance after she died of cancer. The wife had good health insurance during her treatment, so the man wanted to help people who didn’t.

According to The Commonwealth Fund, 41 percent of working-age Americans in 2007 had existing medical debt or difficulty paying their medical bills.

Jack Needleman, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said certain groups are more at risk of medical debt.

First, the uninsured. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 10.2 percent of non-elderly adults were uninsured in 2017.

Needleman said overall this group tends to be younger and healthier, so their medical spending is lower. But a small percentage of the uninsured has high medical expenses that may end up as medical debt.

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