Nonprofit seeks to erase all medical debt in South Carolina

Published: Jun. 6, 2022 at 3:41 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 7, 2022 at 11:55 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - From the moment you dial 911 until you take those first steps out of the hospital, the medical bills that accumulate can be life-changing, affecting everything from buying a meal or buying house to mental health.

“There’s a big stigma around it, and I think that people are ashamed by medical debt overall,” New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt President and CEO Allison Sesso says. “They have mental health problems as a result of just having medical debt. It’s a social determinate of health.”

When medical debt racks up and bills get sent to collections, volunteers with RIP Medical Debt say patients are dealing with an entirely new battle.

“You’re very likely dealing with something that is more important than debt collection and that is health or a family member’s health,” says Scott Crawford, a volunteer with the non-profit.

Crawford says his own battle with bills opened his eyes to the struggles so many people face here in South Carolina after a past due bill was sent to collections.

“[The hospital had been] sending the bill to the wrong address, and I owed $30,” Crawford explains. “So, they’ll go to a debt collector for $30. I’ve heard as little as $13.”

“But that pressure to pay $1 is the same as the pressure to $1,000 or $10,000. You’re still getting hounded, you’re still going to have something on your credit report.”

For patients in the Palmetto State, the burden of medical debt in collections is higher than it typically nationwide, according to date collected by the Urban Institute. Americans with medical debt in collections usually owe about $774. South Carolinians owe $980, about 25% higher that the nationwide median.

Looking specifically at the Lowcountry, patients in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties have a little over $700 in collections, according to the Urban Institute’s data collected in 2021. However, in Beaufort and Orangeburg counties, it’s nearly double.

RIP Medical Debt wants to get rid of that debt entirely.

“End medical debt, that’s our mission”,” Sesso says. “What we do is we take donations, and we turn those donations into 100 to 1 return on investments and we buy medical debt and relieve people of that medical debt.”

According to their website, who qualifies for relief varies, though the goal is to help as many people as possible. You can read about who they help by clicking here. The organization relieves medical debt across the country and are ramping up the efforts here in South Carolina.

Through Crawford’s own diagnosis and billing mishap, he decided to get involved in the race to end medical debt in South Carolina himself.

“I was diagnosed with cancer just over a year ago,” Crawford says. “The bills that came with it took me by surprise because of the number of bills and the size of the bills. I was mentioning this to my mom, and she simply said, ‘Scott that was me when you were young.’”

“She lost her husband when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Crawford says. “That put her in a 5-year spin with medical debt.”

This is story Crawford says is all too relatable for people all over the country. Since his diagnosis last year, he started his own campaign with RIP, raising about $26,000 and relieving debt from about 2,000 families.

“I just can’t fathom somebody just having to go through out of the blue an accident, illness or disease diagnosis, deal with that and then have a debt burden on top of it,” Crawford says. “Then you have debt collectors constantly hounding you to get out of it. It’s just an untenable situation.”

But Crawford, along with another volunteer in South Carolina, Tom Ervin, has recently started a new campaign. As of June 1, the campaign has raised about $600, which on average can alleviate $60,000 of debt. With a fundraising goal of $50,000, there’s potential to erase $5 million of medical debt.

With RIP currently only partnered with one hospital in the state, Crawford says it’s campaigns like this that will relieve people in other parts of the state, even the Lowcountry.

“How I first explained this when I first talked to my mom is…there’s an angel out there, and they’re going to come in, and they’re just going to take care of this situation and move on, and that’s kind of what they do.”

Aside from campaigns, RIP is working to partner with more hospitals.

“Any hospital that works with us, I think, is demonstrating their appreciation for the economic difficulties that face so many of their patients,” Sesso says. “They really do want to come to the table and help provide relief for the people that are facing financial hardship.”

And with the short-term goal to relieve patients of their debt, Crawford says, there’s a vision for the long-term.

“In the meantime, [RIP] is going to help people in this situation but also grow the capability to advocate for healthcare where people that can’t afford these emergencies don’t have to be in a debt collection situation to begin with.”

To donate to RIP’s South Carolina campaign, click here.

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