ActivismHealthcareNew York

Two Women Paid Off $1.5 Million in Medical Debt For Strangers

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By Katie Robbins

How would you like to wake up this holiday season to find a letter in your mailbox announcing a complete stranger has paid off your medical bills just because they wanted to? That’s exactly what two activists with the Campaign for New York Health did for over 1,000 New Yorkers this fall.

Carolyn Kenyon and Judith Jones, two women living in the Fingerlake region in upstate New York, were just mad enough about the inequality in healthcare that they weren’t taking it anymore. They started working with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that buys packaged medical debt for pennies on the dollar typically sent to collection agencies, and then forgives it. No strings attached. The activist duo raised $12,500 from friends and family, allowing them to purchase and forgive $1.5 million in total debt for 1,278 New York residents. You can sort the packaged debt by region and income level, but you can’t seek out an individual’s debt (sorry to say).

They went to all this trouble for people they would never know to reinforce their belief that no one should in the wealthiest country in the world should be unable to afford basic healthcare. That’s why they support the New York Health Act, which would create an improved Medicare for All system in New York State, a universal system that ends financial barriers to care (and get this – it’s costs less than the status quo run by for-profit insurance companies).

Carolyn Kenyon, left, and Judith Jones, both of Ithaca, N.Y., raised $12,500 and sent it to a debt-forgiveness charity, which then purchased a portfolio of $1.5 million of medical debts on their behalf. Photo: Heather Ainsworth/The New York Times

This incredible act of generosity is at odds with our Dickensian healthcare system that literally bankrupts people for life-saving medication and treatment. Experts project 60% of annual bankruptcies are filed because of medical debt, and most people actually had private health insurance at the time they got sick. No doubt Carolyn and Judith’s effort is a huge relief for the individuals lucky enough to benefit, but really it’s just a drop in the bucket for the overall debt crisis with over 70 million Americans struggling to pay medical bills every year.

It’s time to kick out the Scrooges running our healthcare system, who reap huge profits from sick people. There is a better way, and legislation supporting an improved Medicare for All could put this terrible practice in the history books.

If the spirit moves you, you too can vanquish unjust medical debt for strangers. Judy and Carolyn’s next campaign is specifically helping the under-insured Veterans who are not fully covered by the VA (or covered at all) for medical expenses. If you can, donate 10 bucks and you’ll forgive $1,000 of a vet’s debt – thanks to a partnership with RIPMedicalDebt.org. To donate click here.

This holiday season, keep in mind that a little can go a long way. But also make sure you are calling your elected officials and making sure they know this is unacceptable. Find out more about the fight to win universal, guaranteed healthcare at www.nyhcampaign.org

Katie Robbins is the Director of the Campaign For New York Health.

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