2018’s Replacement for “Thank You for Your Service” – Actually Helping Veterans by Relieving Them of Unpayable Medical Debt

Col. (ret) Mikel Burroughs, Jerry Ashton US Navy Journalist E-5, RIP CEO Craig Antico
Col. (ret) Mikel Burroughs, Jerry Ashton US Navy Journalist E-5, RIP CEO Craig Antico

For the first time in 50+ years I found myself in a Navy uniform and marching in a Veterans Day Parade this past November’s in NYC alongside a retired Army Colonel and a Vietnam Sergeant veteran (not shown above). While wearing that uniform, I was hearing someone for the first time say, “Thank you for your service.” I appreciated this acknowledgement of the years I served so many decades ago as a Navy journalist, but received it with mixed emotions.

I’ll tell you why.

On July 25, 2014, my long-time partner and friend in the collections industry, Craig Antico, and I decided to establish ourselves as a 501(C)(3) non-profit called RIP Medical Debt. Our purpose, inspired by Occupy Wall Street’s Rolling Jubilee, was to provide a tax-deductible way for Americans to help us locate, buy and then forgive unpaid medical debt incurred by individuals and families.

Along the way, we began to notice that a surprising percentage of the people whose debt we were abolishing were active duty military and veterans. Like many Americans (even myself as a veteran), I believed that America takes care of the medical needs of the men and women who have served our country – many of whom have come back from several deployments with severe disabilities. Of course, we would take care of them in return.

When you factor in the qualifications and hoops that a military person has to jump through to receive medical care at the VA – or off-site healthcare at non-military hospitals and emergency transport – you can only shake your head in wonderment.

A current example – Veteran Alpha

RIP was recently notified of a 73-year-old Army veteran and his wife (let’s call him “Veteran Alpha”) who is in singular need of help in meeting his medical debt obligations.

The problem began on Veterans Day 2016, when Veteran Alpha required emergency heart-bypass surgery. The local hospital, where he had gone into cardiac arrest, advised the largest VA medical center in their area of his precarious condition only to be told that they would send an ambulance – from over 75 miles away – to pick him up and transport him back to that facility.

The hospital staff put Veteran Alpha on the phone, who then groggily told the VA person that he was being prepped for surgery. End of call.

Since that time, Veteran Alpha’s finances have been swamped with medical bills that the VA has declined to pay because he had “refused emergency transport.” The hospital surgery was $180,000, of which Medicare paid about 80%. The hospital pursued the balance, requiring Veteran Alpha to deplete their $7,000 savings account and taking out a $7,000 loan from the Navy Federal Credit Union on which they are making monthly payments.

Dependent on his 100% service related disability payments, the task of managing out-of-pocket costs and the medical loan are putting the couple in jeopardy of losing their home.

This is a better way to say, “thank you for your service”

RIP depends on donor funds to purchases debt portfolios in bulk and is not designed to target individuals in debt at this point (we’re working on that). However, with help from other military activists, non-profits and highly motivated Americans we are vigorously taking up causes as personal as this.

We can tell you from our own experience that Americans are incredibly giving – once they are made aware of a particular need that deserves their attention. Our own growth (graph below) is an example of that public outpouring of donations as our work attracted more and more attention.

RIP Medical Debt Forgiven 2015 - 2017
RIP Medical Debt Forgiven 2015 - 2017

This year, 2018, it is our intention to abolish $50 million in veteran debt in a #NoVetMedDebt campaign.So, here’s to the allies with whom RIP is joining forces. Whether it be “Semper Fi,” Anchors Aweigh, “Up We Go” or simply “Take That Hill,” we know that we have an important mission and one that we will complete with honor.

RIP is no stranger to painful stories of people caught up in a system that seems uncaring and even heartless. And Veteran Alpha’s situation is shocking only in that it is so ordinary.

As a result or my own increasing awareness, what had started as my blogging occasionally about veterans issues (“I’ll Donate to That!’) and the unconscionable burden of medical debt we have placed on our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors in uniform (“There’s a Billion Dollar Burden of Medical Debt”) it is now our charity’s intention to partner with veterans organizations to collectively right these significant wrongs.

The most recent fruit of these efforts was a mini-summit to address the problem held in December at Fordham University.

This year, 2018, it is our intention to abolish $50 in veteran medical debt alone in a #NoVetMedDebt campaign. So, here’s to the allies with whom RIP is joining forces. Whether it be “Semper Fi,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “Up We Go” or simply “Take That Hill,” we know that we have an important mission and one that we and our military charity and hospital partners will complete with honor.

It will be a long battle against this financial nemesis, but the outcome is clear: we will leave no man or woman behind.

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