RIP Medical Debt helps forgive $1.6 million owed by Philadelphians
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RIP Medical Debt helps forgive $1.6 million owed by Philadelphians

Jun 07, 2023

The more than 30 proud, self-described gutter-pagan, mostly queer dirtbags in their early 30s gathered ‘round Friday night bearing shots of Svedka and Roman candles and sparklers, as the glow of Camden kissed their faces from across the river. The thing that drew them to what’s affectionately known as Chicken Pier was about to be burned to bits.

There was just one hiccup. The giant “medical billing statement” was not responding to the long candle lighter South Philly union organizer Claire Hirschberg was aggressively taking to its bottom-left corner.

Someone sprinted for the backup lighter fluid and someone else led a “debt is hell” chant.

The jubilant crowd handed back a “let it burn” in response.

While the giant bill was fake, it represented a very real accomplishment. The group raised more than $17,000, which purchased more than $1.6 million in medical debt owed by Philadelphians, according to their nonprofit partner RIP Medical Debt.

When hospitals or physician groups have delinquent debts they have little chance of collecting on, they’ll typically go to what’s called the secondary market and sell their portfolios for pennies on the dollar. This is where collectors can come in and begin hounding patients anew. Enter RIP Medical Debt. The nonprofit helps people like Hirschberg and fellow campaign organizer Lou Garner buy portfolios with the explicit goal of forgiving outstanding balances. The relief comes with no strings attached.

With the funds Hirschberg and Garner helped raise, more than 1,700 Philadelphians are slated to receive white envelopes with letters informing them that someone has helped cut into part or all of their medical debt.

A RIP Medical Debt spokesperson estimated letters would start hitting mailboxes around mid-September. Fifty-five people contributed to the fundraising campaign, which included a $5,000 donor match. A spokesperson said the effort helped RIP buy all debt available for purchase on the secondary market, which Hirschberg and Garner announced Friday to cheers.

“I hope that for each of them, it brings some comfort and relief to know that we are there for them,” said Hirschberg. “I’m so proud that it’s this wild group of mostly queer Philly people that made it happen.”

The idea to buy up debt came to Hirschberg after she saw a report of churches buying and forgiving medical debt. She’s not religious, but she said her mostly-queer, South Philly friends are the community that keeps her grounded and that’s sacred in its own way.

The idea resonated with Garner, a neurology nurse, accustomed to seeing patients come in with sudden thunderclap headaches, only to learn they have brain cancer. Garner said these patients who just had their world change in an instant are simultaneously wondering about how much the fight to survive is going to drain their bank account.

“I once had a girl tell me that she was Googling what happens to your medical debt when you die?” said Garner. “On top of all of the other things she’s dealing with … it’s cruelty on top of cruelty.”

Once Hirschberg and Garner set their mind to erasing some debt, they said the easiest part was linking with RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit founded in 2014 by two former debt collectors. RIP does the actual debt buying as well as the research to see who is eligible for relief. To qualify, debtees need to earn less than four times the federal poverty level, which varies by family size, or have debts that are 5% or more of annual income.

All Hirschberg and Garner had to do was write a pitch for their donation page on the RIP Medical Debt website and create some art. A friend drew up a monster truck crushing medical debt — the main crew of donors had just gone to a Monster Jam.

At a late spring party, Hirschberg and Garner presented their idea and got friends to commit to fundraising.

The goal was to raise $10,000 and they surpassed it. Their reward, other than doing a really great thing, would be a debt burning in late August.

“We’re young, we’re party people, we want to light s— on fire,” said Hirschberg.

RIP Medical Debt has only grown since its launch. It partnered with HBO talk show host and comedian John Oliver in 2016 to clear $15 million in medical debt and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has donated $80 million since 2020. The company has facilitated more than $10 billion in medical debt relief. And the idea of buying debt is catching on in local government.

Just this month, Pittsburgh City Council passed legislation that allows them to contract with RIP and use up to $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds to help forgive an estimated $115 million in debt for city residents.

The concept inspired emergency room doctor and State Rep. Arvind Venkat, an Allegheny County Democrat. He introduced a bill in the House that would allow the state to set aside funds in the budget to buy up medical debt. Venkat estimates the state could help “hundreds of thousands” of Pennsylvanians holding more than $1 billion in debt with such a program. The bill was referred to the Senate in July.

Back at Chicken Pier Friday, Ian Byers-Gamber and Jinna Song — who moved from Los Angeles two weeks ago — cashed in on the “donate and you get a dance party” promise in awe of the amount of debt the group of friends was able to buy.

“That’s a really direct impact,” said Song. “What’s so exciting about this event is that it’s from the community for the community … I can’t imagine a better way to enter the city.”

Attendees said their efforts didn’t address the systemic issues in the health-care system that leaves so many in unmanageable debt.

But on Friday, as the fire ate away at the red “paid in full” of the medical statement, a dance party broke out and shots were followed by chasers. Fire-themed songs including Usher’s “Let it Burn” and Ellie Goulding’s more straightforward “Burn” accompanied the fireworks.

As the group cleaned up and planned their next stop at a local bar, Goulding’s lyrics cut their way through the chatter:

“We, we don’t have to worry ‘bout nothing / ‘Cause we got the fire, and we’re burning one hell of a something.”