A local TV journalist’s coverage of the medical debt crisis has snowballed into a community effort that has eliminated $3.3 million in debt for more than 2,600 people.
As part of the Feb. 5 story by KIRO-TV’s Jesse Jones, a Tacoma native, the Seattle station spent $12,000 to purchase $1.3 million in medical debt for 1,000 Western Washington residents. They then mailed letters to the people informing them that their debt was forgiven.
The station established a program to collect donations to purchase and forgive additional medical debt. NBA Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, Seattle Mariners announcer Rick Rizzs and chef John Howie were among the viewers who donated more than $20,000 to purchase and forgive more than $2 million in debt.
The station continues to take donations at debtdonation.com.
About 19 percent of Americans are in collections because of medical debt, the nation’s No. 1 cause for bankruptcy, according to KIRO’s report. Collection agencies buy the debt for pennies on the dollar while the bills continue to accrue interest (Sometimes at rates as high as 12 percent).
“This story is personal to me,” Jones said. “I am a cancer survivor who has survived medical debt. I’ve been on payment plans. I also have a job and insurance, but there are others out there not as fortunate as I am. It’s important to me to share their stories … and make a difference.”
The station used RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based company that partners with philanthropists to help provide relief to people buried under medical bills, to purchase the debt. KIRO does not receive any of the information about the people who received help from their efforts, but the station is asking those who receive a letter forgiving their debt to email Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org to potentially share their story for future coverage of this issue.