An overview history by Jerry Ashton.
RIP Medical Debt is celebrating a milestone. Our debt-forgiving charity became five years old on July 25, 2019.
To those of us who tilled the soil early on, it feels like 50 years, and every single one of them worth it. The highs are coming more often, and the lows – well, we have almost forgotten what they are like.”
We offer our deepest thanks to all of you who made it possible — donors, partners, advisors, board members, allies, and our tireless staff — which make each day a powerful exercise and experience in forgiveness. All this is facilitated greatly by board chair, William von Mueffling, new Executive Director, Ted Sann, and the generous support system we have gathered along the way.
Let’s take a brisk walk through our history to refresh the memories for some of you, and add to the understanding of others. Here are a few highlights of the past five years. Hold my hand. Remember, we are only five.
In January, Craig Antico and I were fresh off the experience of helping an Occupy Wall Street team to purchase and abolish more than $30 million in debt. We’re told the campaign is being shut down, so our help is no longer needed. We looked at each other and in one voice said, “We can’t let that happen.” We decided to incorporate RIP Medical Debt as a charity. As our founding board member, we welcomed Robert Goff, then the Executive Director of the NYU Physicians Association.
On July 25, 2014, RIP officially became a New York 501(C)(3) nonprofit corporation. Craig andI supported ourselves by consulting and collecting for medical practices while we struggled to raise donations. Robert advised as we went along.
The first year was difficult. Raising awareness and raising money require one another. Thanks to a May 15 story in Metro NY, we finally got our very first notice by the press: “These Guys Want to Pay Your Medical Bills.”
In August, Yes! Magazine featured us in a story “These Former Bill Collectors Decide to Ditch the Industry.”
To increase public awareness of medical debt and enhance the credentials of RIP Medical Debt, Robert Goff and I co-wrote The Patient, The Doctor and The Bill Collector: A Medical Debt Survival Guide. I asked journalist and author Judah Freed at Hoku House to serve as the editor and publisher. We released the book online in December.
June was pivotal for RIP Medical Debt. In response to the new book, HBO’s John Oliver featured RIP as the charity chosen to abolish almost $15 million in unpaid medical debt from Texas — climaxing his send-up of the collections and debt-buying industry.
Within minutes of our name and logo appearing onto show, the burst of internet traffic crashed our website, briefly. Almost overnight, RIP was “known.” (The debt-buying segment, to date, has more than 14 million views on YouTube.)
In December, the reputable collections industry website, InsideARM, questioned both RIP’s approach and effectiveness in an article titled “Is RIP Really a Way Out for some with Medical Debt?” They came away with a deeper understanding of our charity service as a public necessity.
In January, RIP held its first Medical Debt Summit at the offices of TheNumber. Representatives from governmental agencies, social advocacy firms, attorneys, the collection industry, military veterans, credit reporting firms, and medical technologists gathered to discuss the problem of unpaid medical debt. Also in attendance were= academics from UC/Berkeley, MIT, UCLA, and the University of Chicago.
In June, the Minnesota Nurses Association abolished $2.6 million in medical debt for their state’s residents as a thank-you for standing by them during an extended strike against a major hospital.
At a second medical debt summit in NYC, also in June, the university team formally launched the first-ever economic impact study of the effects from unpayable medical debt, the results to be published late 2019/early 2020.
A third summit in September, held at the offices of TransUnion, solidified the relationship with RIP along with their support of the impact study.
Also in September, two Pensacola high school students, calling themselves the Debt Sharks, decided to emulate John Oliver and raise money to abolish debt in their home town. The Pensacola News Journal covered their campaign taking a “bite” out of medical debt
At a fourth mini-summit held in NYC that November, the day before Veterans Day, RIP announced an amazing goal for 2018 – abolishing $50 million in military and veteran medical debt. Two military veterans at RIP, Mikel Burroughs and myself, marched in the veteran’s day parade to make public this commitment.
The amount of medical debt had RIP forgiven by the end of 2017: $33.9 million.
Media attention began to grow public awareness of RIP across the USA.
In March, Yes! Magazine wrote an in-depth article about TV stations following the lead of John Oliver in the movement to forgive medical debt. “The path from Occupy to NBC-TV affiliates abolishing debt [$15 million] shows that impetus for change is spreading.”
In April, Covenant Church in Carrollton, TX, decided to invest $100,000, which they would ordinarily spend to expand membership, to buy and abolish $10 million in medical debt in their area, The response inside and outside the church was overwhelmingly positive. The church campaign was featured in a news article in The Dallas Observer and in an interview on the local NBC station for Dallas Fort Worth.
In May, Town & Country Magazine included Craig Antico and me as #38 on their list of their Top Philanthropists of 2018.
In September, TransUnion formalized its close relationship with RIP, declaring in this press release: “TransUnion Healthcare Announces Support of RIP Medical Debt to Help Consumers Avoid Bankruptcies.”
In November, one anonymous couple’s donation made it possible for RIP to launch the most ambitious medical debt abolishment in history — $250, million in relief for tens of thousands of families, with $50 million of this devoted to abolishing veterans medical debt. In a spectacular rollout, debt was abolished on Thanksgiving and through the December holidays.
In December, The New York Times took note of two ladies in the Finger Lakes Region of New York who erased $1.5 million in medical debt for hundreds of strangers.
Also in December, Craig Antico joined Robert Goff and me to author a second book titled: End Medical Debt: Curing America’s $1 Trillion Unpayable Healthcare Debt. Judah Freed at Hoku House again served as editor, designer and publisher,
By the end of 2018, RIP Medical Debt had abolished $505.5 million in unpayable medical bills.
2019, So far…
This is shaping up to be an amazing year, if the first six months are any indication. The shining stars appear to be (drumroll) — faith-based communities! That’s right, donations from churches and religious organizations of every denomination are outstripping even corporate donations.
All this came about because of that one pioneering church in Texas, Covenant, mentioned earlier. Their story was picked up by numerous religious publications around the country. RIP’s work resonated with their readers.
In May, Nonprofit Quarterly highlighted RIP’s effective collaboration with faith-based groups: “RIP Medical Debt: Churches Shine a Light on America’s Mounting Medical Debt.” The article said,, “Nonprofits take many different forms, and some are designed specifically to work in partnership. The organization addressed here [RIP] allows others to live out their mission intentions while keeping media focus on a larger, persistent medical and economic problem.”
In July, the RIP team descended on Washington DC for a special evening dedicated to education and outreach for Congress. A copy of End Medical Debt was delivered to each member of the House and Senate as our contribution to helping our public servants better understand the complexities of healthcare debt and the importance of abolishing it!
Our grand total of debt forgiveness from inception through June: $690.5 million! (We passed $715 million by mid-August.)
All of us are driving hard to reach our goal of abolishing over $1 Billion (yes, billion) of medical debt by the end of 2019!
Do you think we can do that? Do you think you can do that? Stay tuned.
To celebrate our accomplishments in five years of existence, RIP threw a 5th Birthday Party birthday party in our New York office on July 25. If you are one of our Tweethearts, check out @RIPMedicalDebt.
In the meantime, enjoy the ice cream and birthday cake. It’s a party!