Group trying to pay off $1.5M in unknowing Oklahomans’ medical debt

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OKLAHOMA CITY - A local medical group is raising money to help relieve $1.5 million in medical debt for Oklahoma patients who need it the most.

"In the state of Oklahoma, about 26 percent of our population has medical debt, and it is over $1.2 billion. It’s worth that much money," said Dr. Krista Schwarz. She's a family physician at Primary Health Partners and a member of the Oklahoma chapter of the Free Medical Market Association.

The FMMA is trying to make a dent in that debt with the help of nationwide nonprofit, RIP Medical Debt, which has found a way to relieve debt sitting there unpaid.

"RIP Medical can go buy it at a really low rate but pay off the whole amount," Dr. Schwarz said.

First the FMMA members need to raise at least $15,000, then RIP Medical Debt can use that to buy people's medical debt at a penny on the dollar and pay it off, meaning they can stretch that amount to $1.5 million without the patient being taxed for it. Because it's a 501c3, donations are 100-percent tax deductible.

"It's a lot of money so if we can help them, help just some people do this, it can make a big difference to get them out from underneath that and they can go back to doing what they need to do for their families," she said.

It's a prime example of a little going a long way to tangibly offer people relief in day-to-day life.

"It can be kind of humiliating," said Stacy Hansen. She's a medical advocate for seniors and a managing member of Stacy Cares Oklahoma LLC. She's watched as her patients have been smothered under mountains of medical debt, including a family member who she advocates for.

"[He] had a heart attack just in January 2018 and he’s still trying to get out from under that debt," Hansen said. "He needed to retire, and now he’s living on social security and he’ can’t afford the bills, and that’s really adding a lot of stress."

She said he prioritizes smaller debts, paralyzed by the big one.

"He’s just looking at it, he’s not even paying on it," Hansen said. "It’s a $3,000 bill and it might as well be a million."

What's more, she said he's embarrassed to go to the doctor where he has a growing tab but needs more care.

It's something Dr. Schwarz sees all the time.

"People who put off a procedure, or put off a preventative test because they know their copay will be very large, or they know they may already owe money to a facility and they know they cannot go back there, or they just don’t want to make more debt," she said.

Debtors are chosen by RIP Medical Debt, which looks at debt portfolios in a target area and forgives thousands of people's debts at once. The groups of people chosen must either earn less than two times the federal poverty level, their debts must be five percent or more of their annual income or they must be facing insolvency.

The FMMA doesn't have a choice in whose debt is relieved, but if they raise the full $15,000, they've requested the money be used for Central Oklahomans who qualify. If they don't raise all the money by Monday, Oct. 14, the money already donated will still be used to relieve medical debt, but it won't necessarily be used in Oklahoma. Donations can be made at the FMMA of Oklahoma Campaign page.

Once the debt is paid, the debtor will be surprised by a letter in the mail letting them know they're off the hook.

"The cool thing is anybody can do this. There have been many churches around the country who have done it, other doctors groups around the country who have done it," Dr. Schwarz said. "It’s a great way to help those in need."

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