NBC stations around the country are documenting the open wound of medical debt.
"It baffles me," said one viewer in Orinda.
Another in Texas concluded, "We’re screwed."
The dark cloud hangs over families everywhere.
In fact, a Federal Reserve found that almost half of respondents had received a medical bill in the past year that they were unable to pay.
"Medical debt isn’t just a one off," said Bruce McClary with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. McClary says there is something simple you can do up-front about high hospital bills: You can ask for financial help.
It’s called "Charity Care."
And you might qualify — even if your family has health insurance and your income is six figures.
The American Hospital Association said U.S. hospitals say they offered $38 billion in "charity care" in 2016. That $38 billion includes millions from hospitals here in the Bay Area.
For example: UCSF says it gave $9 million worth of charity care last year; El Camino Hospital says it provided $8.5 million; and Kaiser registered $6 million.
So, how do you qualify? And how do you request Charity Care?
Let’s use "Sutter Health" as an example. Its application, which we located on the Sutter website using a simple web search — says an uninsured family of four making up to $100,400 per year (4x the federal poverty level) may apply for a "full write off of all charges for hospital services."
Even if the family has health insurance, the Sutter application states, the family might still qualify for a write-off of their ‘patient responsibility amount’ (such as deductibles and co-pays) if their medical expenses exceeded 10 percent of their income over the past 12 months.
McClary says you’ve got to ask for assistance early — before your bill goes to a debt collector.
"The longer you wait to get help, the fewer options there are," he said.
Many hospitals that receive government funding are required to offer Charity Care. But they don’t exactly advertise it.
A University of Michigan study found that just 42 percent of hospitals will notify a patient about Charity Care before trying to collect an unpaid bill. And so, millions of families that can’t afford to pay have racked up billions of dollars in medical debt.
That's where an unusual charity is stepping in.
"We see ourselves as predatory givers," said Jerry Ashton, a former debt collector.
Ashton now serves as Co-Founder of RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit that says it buys medical debt in bulk from debt collectors and forgives the past due accounts. Ashton says every dollar he spends can buy one hundred dollars in debt and erase it.
"We’re getting rid of the feeling of powerlessness that people have," Ashton said.
Now, NBC-owned TV stations around the country are working with RIP Medical Debt. We’ve made a $150,000 contribution that will forgive as much as $20 million in medical debt nationwide, including $1.5 million worth in the San Francisco Bay Area.
"We are deeply grateful for the work that you people are doing in getting out the word, because if you know about it, you can do something about it," Ashton said.
NBC can’t forgive the debt of specific people, because RIP is buying the accounts in bulk from debt collectors.
If your account is part of the batch of $1.5 million in the Bay Area that RIP is buying and forgiving, you will get a yellow envelope in the mail. If you receive one, we would love to hear from you, please.
But even if you don’t want to contact us, please hold onto the letter. That paperwork is proof that your debt has been forgiven and debt collector calls should stop.