“When they finished [the operation], I had holes in my body, rips and tears from where they were trying to get the infection out of my body,” Henderson says.
Three years later, Henderson, 62, receives a monthly disability check from Social Security in the mail — but part of that check, he says, has already been taken away to pay for the bills from his time at UPMC Presbyterian. He is struggling to pay off his medical debt.
Henderson’s story is one of many familiar to Ben Fiorillo, an organizer with the Pennsylvania-based human-rights organization Put People First! PA (PPF). More than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians have unpaid medical debt, according to the group. And in America, more than 35 percent of those with medical debt have difficulty paying for basic necessities like food, heat, or housing.
“It’s one of the terrible symptoms of our for-profit health care system,” says Fiorillo.
PPF recently partnered with the national debt-forgiveness group RIP Medical Debt to eliminate more than a million dollars in medical debt in Western Pennsylvania. Through a series of fundraisers, PPF raised $16,466, which RIP Medical Debt will use to purchase $1.6 million in medical debt for pennies on the dollar in 18 Western Pennsylvania counties, including Allegheny.
Fiorillo says 875 people in those counties will have their debt forgiven. That’s a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million Pennsylvanians with unpaid medical bills, but RIP Medical Debt targets debt belonging to those most in need. The people whose debt will be forgiven have declared bankruptcy, make less than half the federal poverty level, or spend more than 5 percent of their income on medical bills.
“It’s not every single person in Western Pennsylvania who’s in medical debt,” Fiorillo says. “It’s a subset of people who are facing the worst impact of it.”
PPF organizers don’t know the personal information of the people whose debt they’ve bought, but the portfolios RIP Medical Debt purchases include personal information that allow them to contact patients. Fiorillo says RIP Medical Debt is in the process of informing the 875 Western Pennsylvania patients that their debt has been forgiven.
RIP Medical Debt functions like a debt-collection agency. Typically, health insurance companies are willing to transfer ownership of the debt for pennies on the dollar, since they don’t have the desire or resources to collect the debt for the original cost. But instead of hounding people to pay the debt like debt-collection agencies would, RIP Medical Debt just forgives it. And because it’s a nonprofit, the forgiven debt isn’t taxed.
A few years ago, the process was popularized by talk-show host John Oliver, who paid about $60,000 on air to purchase more than $15 million in medical debt.
PPF’s ongoing “health care is a human right” campaign attempts to fight flaws in the state’s health care system. Ultimately, PPF’s goal is to push state lawmakers to pass a single-payer health care plan in Pennsylvania and take private insurance companies out of the equation entirely.
“This is a long-term fight in order to win a universal single-payer health care system,” Fiorillo says. In the meantime, the group is pushing for legislation that would establish an office for a public health care advocate in the state government.
“I think it’s important to put in context what’s actually happening around the issue of medical debt,” Fiorillo says. “What we have in our current health-care system is insurance companies that are incentivized to pay out as little as possible.”