$2 million in local medical debt forgiven

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Imagine walking out to your mailbox this week and finding a yellow envelope with a logo on it that says RIP Medical Debt, a subject you know a lot about as you have been fighting to deal with it for months or even years. You open the envelope and inside is a letter telling you that your medical debt has been abolished by the organization whose logo is on the envelope. Is this real? For hundreds of Finger Lakes area residents, and several hundred more New York State residents, this could become reality very soon.


Carolyn Kenyon and Judy Jones are two local activists fighting to educate the public and convince elected officials to pass the New York Health Act, legislation that would create a single-payer health care system in New York. Currently, the bill has already passed the New York State Assembly but is just a few votes shy of passing in the state senate. While looking for ways to raise awareness about health care needs in the area, Jones and Kenyon stumbled upon RIP Medical Debt, a 501(c)(3) charity that buys up medical debt portfolios, for pennies on the dollar, just to abolish it. According to the RIP Medical Debt website, “$100 can forgive $10,000 in debt.”


“We were looking for ways to help people understand why that’s an important change to make,” Jones said, the “change” being the enactment of the NY Health Act. “We know that when the New York Health Act passes it will end medical debt in New York State. So, we began to educate ourselves on the seriousness of medical debt and the pain and suffering of so many lives, and decided to go ahead and try and raise enough money.”


Raising a certain minimum set by RIP Medical Debt allows fundraisers to choose a focus area for the debt relief to go to. Jones and Kenyon chose right here in the Finger Lakes, as well as across the state. They raise $12,500, $10,000 of which will go toward buying up around $2 million in medical debt, the rest goes to the organization for administrative expenses.


“It’s paying off $616,000 of debt in the Finger Lakes region, and then $1.5 million in the rest of New York State,” Kenyon said. “We were told by RIP Medical Debt that the debt belonged to people in every single county in New York except Manhattan. So, it really is across the state and a lot more than we thought.”


Jones said the organization can focus the debt forgiveness on individuals living well below the poverty level.


They found RIP Medical Debt in April and began raising money, sending letters and reaching out to friends and acquaintances. Many of the donations were gifts of $100, but a generous single donor helped raise the majority of the funds by giving $8,000. Kenyon and Jones chose to keep this donor’s identity private.


“We have good friends,” the pair said of their fundraising efforts.


But the real mission for both Jones and Kenyon is not to pay off medical debt for their neighbors. The real fight is passing the New York Health Act.


“Raising money to pay off medical debt is just a stop-gap measure,” Kenyon said. “As long as we have the system that we currently have of health care there will be medical debt. It’s a stop-gap measure, it is to help people, but it’s also to raise awareness.”


Kenyon has worked for years as a social worker providing mental health services. This first-hand interaction with the healthcare industry is what pushed her to become an activist for the NY Health Act.


“A profit-driven system, it’s morally wrong,” Kenyon said.


National polls indicate that health care is one of the most important, if not the most important, issue for voters today. If passed, the New York Health Act would insure all New York residents, and eliminate premiums, co-pays, and employer insurance contributions. The plan would be paid for, at least in part, by a progressive payroll tax.


According to a study done by the RAND Corporation and released earlier this year, tax collection estimates from the New York Health Act payroll and nonpayroll taxes would total $139.1 billion in 2022 and $210.1 billion in 2031. For state taxes, this would be an increase from about $89.3 billion in the status quo to $228.4 billion in 2022. But, the study also found that “from 2022 through 2031, the ten-year impact of the NYHA on total health care spending is a net savings of $80 billion.” While taxes may go up elsewhere, medical costs will go down. New York residents with a household income below 1,000 percent of the federal poverty level ($133,500 for a single person, $276,100 for a family of four) would pay less for health care. Residents making more than 1,000 percent of the federal poverty level would pay more.


“I have a very strong belief that this [health care] should be a right and that it’s wrong for people to be making a profit from our health care,” Kenyon said of her support for the legislation.


Carrying around medical debt can hurt a person’s credit score, which can affect other areas of their life. A bad credit score can make it harder, or simply impossible, to get an apartment or a loan. According to RIP Medical Debt, 7.7 percent of the state population has medical debt, and together, New York residents have $1,230,227,777 of medical debt on their credit reports. Nationally, Americans carry around $75 billion in medical debt on credit reports.


Now, what Kenyon and Jones are worried about is that people who receive their yellow RIP Medical Debt envelopes letting them know that their debt has been forgiven, will not believe it, think it’s a scam, or, as Jones likes to say “round file it.” Those who receive the envelopes don’t have to do anything, the debt is simply abolished. But, no longer having that debt might make them pursue opportunities they might otherwise have dismissed.


“We want them to know that this has happened and that their credit report is clear,” Jones said. “They get, with that letter, instructions on how to look up their credit report, how to deal with additional debt that they may have and consolidate, how to find an advisor for understanding and minimizing their debt.”


Could you be among the several hundred residents who happen to have their medical debt abolished? Check your mailbox and find out.

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