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Using Debt Collectors' Tools, Local Activists Hope to Erase Over $1,000,000 in East Bay Medical Debt

JP Massar
Sunday June 02, 2019 - 12:05:00 PM

Strike Debt Bay Area, a small activist group devoted to abolishing unjust debt, has achieved its initial goal of being able to eliminate $1,000,000 of medical debt owed by low and no-income East Bay residents.

Medical debt is a particularly pernicious form of debt. Savoring the pun, it is akin to rubbing salt into an open wound. Those unfortunate enough to be stricken with cancer, to have their child need expensive medical care, or to get into a debilitating accident frequently then find themselves with the added, impossibly stressful burden of an insurmountable debt, harassed non-stop by debt collectors seeking to squeeze anything they can out of someone already down and out.

Medical debt in America is a staggering problem: almost one out of every five Americans has unpaid medical debt on their credit report ( In 2016, hospitals across the United States were facing about $38 billion in uncompensated care ( Behind every single unpaid medical debt is a human story. And behind every unpaid medical debt is a collection industry whose sole source of profit is, and whose continued existence relies on, a sufficiency of such debt and human misery.

If you're unfortunate enough to be a person who gets calls about unpaid bills, here's what you may not know: those calls very likely don't come from the person you owe. Instead, they usually come from debt collectors who bought your debt from its original source. In the case of medical debt, hospitals and doctors' offices generally sell the debt as soon as they've determined that you're not going to pay promptly. They sell it to "high end" debt collectors, who will harass you and see if they can get you to pay. If they can get you to pay then they get all the money you owe, minus the money they spent to buy your debt. If they can't get you to pay - usually because you simply don't have the money - they'll sell the debt further down the debt collector chain -- for less money -- and someone new will start harassing you and see how successful they are at getting you to pay. So they have fewer successes, but they paid less for the debt, so they get to keep more of whatever debts they do collect.

Unless you are a business set up exactly by specific rules, you can't buy your own debt that way. And you can't buy Aunt Fatima's debt that way either. That's where RIP Medical Debt comes in. 

RIP Medical Debt is a national non-profit that wipes out defaulted medical debt by buying it up for a penny or less on the dollar on the open market (you read that correctly, a penny or less on the dollar, 100:1). They both collect donations on their own and partner with locals – churches, schools, newspapers, activist groups - who go out into their own communities to find donations. 


Strike Debt Bay Area (SDBA) and its local partner's campaigns (here and here), working through RIP, have collectively raised more than $10,000 already - enough to buy up and literally rip up $1,000,000 or more in medical debt. The more raised the more debt that can be abolished, and now the target is $15,000 for $1.5 million. 


In Berkeley, the McGee-Spaulding Neighbors in Action neighborhood group has endorsed the effort and its members have contributed time and dollars to making it a success. Regionally, Public Bank East Bay, the Alameda County Green Party and First They Came for the Homeless have also endorsed the campaign. An item is coming soon before the Berkeley City Council to allow Councilmember Kate Harrison to make a contribution from her discretionary council fund, and other councilmembers will have the opportunity at that time to do the same.

Greg Jan, one of the coordinators of Strike Debt Bay Area's campaign, noted

"Donating to abolish a neighbor's medical debt is particularly satisfying - knowing the relief from stress that a small amount, leveraged 100-fold, will bring to someone, while at the same time rubbing our hands because some debt collector somewhere has been denied their pound of flesh."

No one should have medical debt. Period. No one should die for lack of money to buy insulin. Period. While so many people are working so hard to make this be reality, it is not yet that way anywhere in our fifty states. By carrying out this campaign, Strike Debt Bay Area hopes to not only help those in need, but to call attention to the absurdity of GoFundMe's and debt relief as society's systemic answer to the vicissitudes of disease, infection and injury.

The campaign target is $15,000, which will initiate RIP’s process to buy up and erase a bundle of local debt. To find out more about the campaign, the market for medical debt and the history of medical debt relief, SDBA has prepared an FAQ.