A group of physicians and a nonprofit that goes by the name “RIP Medical Debt” have partnered to wipe out more than $61 million in medical debt for 89,220 people in Georgia.
Sounds too good to be true? They’re used to that.
RIP Medical Debt is a nonprofit charity organization based in Long Island City, NY that acquires unpaid medical debts and forgives them. The charity is working with Vituity, a medical group consisting of 5,000 physicians and advanced providers that work in hospitals across the country. In Atlanta, Vituity provides care at Emory Decatur and Emory Hillandale hospitals.
Together, the organizations say they are eliminating a total of $61.61 million in medical debt from the past four to nine years for people in Georgia. According to Vituity, the average medical debt relieved in Georgia is $690 per household.
“We get responses from individuals who we’ve helped, and they’ll say, ‘I can’t believe this is real,’” Allison Sesso, chief executive officer of RIP Medical Debt, said. “I mean, certainly, I think it’s a little unbelievable, but there are nonprofits in the world that are working really hard to help people and right some of the wrongs in our world.”
Those who will be helped through this program live in 70 counties across the state, with Cobb and Fulton counties having the greatest concentration of people getting debt removed.
Those receiving debt relief will be notified by a branded RIP Medical Debt letter sent to their address. Letters have already started going out and will continue to be mailed throughout the next months.
Still don’t believe it? You can look them up on Charity Navigator and GuideStar, websites where the organization has received a high ratings.
To qualify for this program, a patient’s income has to fall at or below 400% of federal poverty guidelines: For a single person that’s an annual income of $58,320 and $120,000 annually for a family of four. A person also qualifies if their medical debt accounts for 5% or more of their annual household income. The debt includes emergency department, hospital medicine, skilled nursing and urgent and critical care visits.
Nationally, more than 100 million people are burdened with medical debt, which can cause problems such as food insecurity, a loss of housing and bankruptcy. Given the cost of health care and the aggressive tactics used to get people to pay medical debt, some may be skeptical when they receive news that their debt has been cleared.
RIP Medical Debt is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2014, that has acquired and cleared over $8.5 billion in medical debt, helping over 5.5 million households.
They acquire medical debt owed to a hospital or provider that has not been paid and is about to be sent to collections. In Georgia, the debt acquired will be bills from Vituity providers that have gone unpaid for at least four years. These bills are usually considered “bad debt” and are sometimes sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar. Debt collectors earn a profit by getting people to pay the bill.
Sesso said that the strategy RIP Medical Debt uses takes advantage of that for-profit market for debt. RIP Medical Debt takes donated dollars and uses these funds to buy “bad debt portfolios” and then forgives the debts. Sesso explained that using this method allows them to stretch their charitable dollars farther — sometimes $1 can buy $100 worth of debt.
Credit: RIP Medical Debt
Credit: RIP Medical Debt
While the organization does not have a way for individuals to check a website to see if their debt has been removed, they can email RIP Medical Debt to have someone check for them.
Vituity is doing the same thing in Illinois right now, and has done so in the past in other states. In 2022, 46,000 Vituity patients in Oregon and Washington had their outstanding medical debt cleared, totaling $25.4 million in bills paid.
“I hope that we’ve helped improve the health of 89,220 people in Georgia. We’re health care providers. It’s our job to improve our patients health,” said Dr. Gregg Miller, chief medical officer of Vituity. “Helping eliminate this debt allows people to get back on their feet if they’ve been struggling and helps them keep a roof over their heads.”
Credit: Hilary Higgins
Credit: Hilary Higgins
U.S. Census Bureau data from 2017 found that 19% of US. households carried medical debt, meaning that they are unable to make any payment on the debt without taking away money used for essential needs. The median amount owed was $2,000. Additionally, past-due medical debt is more common in Black and Hispanic households than white households: 28% of Black households and 22% of Hispanic households hold debt compared to 17% of white households.
People who receive debt relief from the program are not expected to pay the debt back, nor will they owe any income taxes on the debt cancellation.
Sesso says that she hopes other providers in Atlanta and Georgia will seek out partnerships following this effort. However, she recognizes that there are broader issues with medical debt to address in the country.
“We’re not the final answer,” Sesso said. “I think it’s important to point out that while we recognize that this is extremely helpful to those individuals whose debts we’re relieving, there needs to be bigger solutions. We shouldn’t have to exist to do this work, but we’re happy to do it until we come up with some bigger solutions.”
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