Two women from Ithaca, N.Y. are making headlines after raising money that eventually helped forgive more than $ 1 million in medical debt for low-income strangers. Carolyn Kenyon and Judith Jones raised $ 12,500 and sent it to the debt-forgiveness charity R.I.P. Medical Debt, which then bought a portfolio of $ 1.5 million of medical debts for half a penny on the dollar on their behalf.
The organization then sent nearly 1,300 yellow envelopes to select New Yorkers, letting them know that they’d purchased their medical debt and forgiven it, per the New York Times.
Jones tells SELF that she started fundraising as part of her work as a member of the Finger Lakes chapter of the Campaign for New York Health, which supports universal health coverage for state residents through passage of the New York Health Act.
“One of the outcomes of that act is that it will end medical debt,” Jones says. “Medical debt is an enormous problem across the country.”
Jones says she "stumbled across" R.I.P. Medical Debt while searching online and "it struck me as an idea that would garnish some attention around here." So, she teamed up with Kenyon and together they raised more than $ 12,000 over the summer. “It took on a life of its own,” she says. “As we learned more about the depth of the problem of medical debt, we were more and more taken by the correctness of doing the project.”
Kenyon tells SELF that she and Jones are “surprised” by how much attention their project has received. However, she adds, it makes sense on some level. “Anxiety about being able to afford health care seems to be epidemic,” she says.
In fact, one in five working Americans have trouble paying their medical bills, according to data from a joint Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times survey. Half of those without health insurance say they have problems paying medical bills. Even among those with health insurance, 63 percent say that they’ve used up most or all of their savings and 42 percent took on an extra job or worked more hours to pay their medical debt. It's an issue that can affect anyone who requires access to health services, especially those facing chronic, expensive illnesses like cancer.
A little money goes a long way toward forgiving medical debt.
In this case, it took just $ 12,500 to forgive $ 1.5 million in medical debt, which is pretty staggering. So, how does that work?
R.I.P. Medical Debt buys the debts of people who earn less than two times the federal poverty level (FPL), which is a measure of income issued every year by the Department of Health and Human Services. Exact FPL cutoffs vary by household size, but include, for instance, a $ 16,460 income for a family of two and a $ 25,100 income for a family of four.
The organization can buy those debt portfolios at a big discount using donations, which is how they’re able to stretch money so much, the organization’s cofounder Craig Antico tells SELF. At that point, the bills have usually gone through several collection agencies and have remained unpaid for months or even years. “We want to enable donors to help each other to remove the hardship of medical debt,” he says. “Our real goal is to end medical debt hardship and bring wellness to people and communities through debt abolishment.”
Antico and his partner, Jerry Ashton, also just co-authored a book called End Medical Debt, and he says that royalties will go toward his organization, with each book sold abolishing more than $ 500 in debt.
Jones says she’s hopeful that her recent donation will help make a difference in many people’s lives. “These people may now have their credit report repaired enough to rent a home,” Jones says. “Sometimes it can make a difference in whether they’re hired for a job. We hope that this will help improve their ability to live a successful life.”
Jones and Kenyon are already looking forward to their next project: They’re raising money to help relieve the medical debt of veterans. If you’re interested in helping to relieve medical debt, you can donate directly to ripmedicaldebt.org.