How $1 million in medical debt was forgiven in Washington by KIRO 7, Jesse Jones

KIRO 7 and Jesse Jones have paid off $1.1 million of medical debt for 1,000 people in western Washington.

After hearing Washington state medical debt stories for an investigative report, we decided to do something about it. Our goal: buy as much medical debt as we could.

We spent $12,000 and purchased $1 million worth of medical debt owed by viewers in our region. And we are forgiving every single cent of it.

Click here for how you can help.

See the full story in text below -- and see the follow-up story about how viewers forgave ANOTHER $1 million in medical debt. 

One thousand people will be getting letters in yellow envelopes that have a KIRO 7 sticker on them.

The letters will go out this week. We worked with a company out of New York called RIP Medical Debt. They made the purchase on our behalf and we do not know who is getting relief, so it could cover just one doctor’s visit or one test.

If you receive a letter from KIRO 7, please contact us. We would love to hear your story.

Millions of Americans face crushing medical debt every day.  

It’s the number one cause for bankruptcy in the country.

Joelle Craft of Seattle has multiple sclerosis.

“I was 16 when I was diagnosed,” Craft said. “Trust me, if my mother and I thought we had a choice, we would have said something right then.”

Craft said she will constantly have medical debt. She has already spent thousands of dollars for treatment.

“Every penny that I have goes to debt and survival,” Craft explained.

For a family in Yelm, medical debt begins at birth.

“My son was born and he was born prematurely, so he stayed at the NICU and it was his medical care for the cost of that,” mother Brittanie High explained.

High had a job and insurance when she gave birth to her son, Lincoln.

“My insurance switched over on Feb. 1, and Lincoln was born on Feb. 1,” High said.

But there was a billing mix-up between the provider and her insurance company.

“I literally handed my insurance card over. I don’t know what else I could have done,” High explained. “They keep saying they’re going to re-bill, but they never do.”

For two years, High has fought to get the $15,000 debt paid.

"I've had to deal with, you know, not only having a new baby, newborn, then adding on top of this medical debt, especially with a special needs son. It's just something that I don't think anybody should have to deal with, especially with having insurance," High said.

High and Craft are two of the 19 percent of all Americans who are in collections over medical debt.

In many ways, medical debt can live forever.  

If you can’t pay it down, that debt can be sold. Collection agencies buy it for pennies on the dollar.

They’ll send bill after bill.  If it’s not paid, the cycle continues.

Fewer pennies for them, and more interest for you.

“So does that mean if you can’t afford health care, you just don’t get to live?” Craft asked,

It’s how medical debt is sold that doesn’t help consumers, experts say. Medical debt can be sold multiple times. A $1,000 bill could be sold to a collection agency for as little as $10.  However, the amount you owe can grow at 12 percent interest.

In six years, the debt almost doubles while the agency still pays $10.

“In some cases, we’ve found that interest starts accruing from the moment you walk into the hospital facility,” lawyer Lili Sotelo said.

Lili Sotelo is a lawyer representing consumers medical debt cases. Sotelo told us 40 percent of Americans have medical debt, and about half will end up in collections.

The bottom line: Medical debt is the No. 1 cause for personal bankruptcy.

Joelle Craft filed for bankruptcy six years ago.

"We are going to create a situation where people are afraid to go to the hospital or put off important and needed medical service because they can't afford it," Sotelo said.

“I passed off seeing my doctor regarding the cancer scares for over a year,” Craft explained.

“I (said) I couldn’t afford the colposcopy. I couldn’t afford another pap smear,” Craft said.

After repeated requests from her children, Craft went to the doctor and had lifesaving uterine surgery.

“I couldn’t say no to that surgery or I wouldn’t be here right now,” Craft said.

Craft contends just the fear of medical debt is deadly.

"I've got three kids," Craft explained. "I can't say no to health care That's like saying no to them. No, you don't get to have your mom, cause, what? I don't have the money? To live? So, I'm in collections and it sucks."

After this story aired, many of you reached out to see how you could help those with medical debt.  

After our original story aired, many viewers reached out to see how they could help. So we created a website where you can donate and help in the effort to get rid of medical debt for people across western Washington. You can now go to DebtDonation.com, fill out a form and donate as much or as little as you want.

Since KIRO 7 and Jesse believe in full transparency, some things to know. When you use the form to donate, your money goes to the charity, “RIP Medical Debt” which helped KIRO 7 and Jesse buy a million dollars in medical debt for $12,000.

Your donation will go toward paying off more debt in Washington State. Some of the money will also go toward administrative fees for the charity, including transaction fees and mailings.

Those mailings alert the debtors that their debt has been paid. KIRO 7 and Jesse Jones will not get any money from your donation. If you want more information about the RIP Medical Debt charity, click here.

KIRO 7 and Jesse Jones want to thank you for your generosity.

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