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A debt of gratitude

For about the price of a new car, a Medford church made a multimillion-dollar impact for more than 1,000 Oregonians who were struggling with medical debt.

More than $2 million worth of medical debt stemming from more than 1,700 past-due medical accounts in the name of 1,240 Oregonians was eliminated earlier this month thanks to New Life Church of the Nazarene’s $30,000 donation to a RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization that buys medical debt portfolios for pennies on the dollar using the same markets as collection agencies.

The Rye, New York, nonprofit differs from a collection agency in what it does with the debts it buys — nothing. Instead of sending out bill collectors, the nonprofit sends out letters that a donor paid the bill. The letters went out earlier this month to residents in 32 counties, including 89 people in Jackson County with $209,082 worth of medical debt, according to RIP Medical Debt volunteer Tom Ashton of Phoenix.

The campaign with the church was Tom Ashton’s first with the nonprofit, but his brother, Jerry Ashton of New York, co-founded the nonprofit nearly eight years ago. They described the $2,079,072 worth of medical debt as everything from Oregon that the nonprofit could buy from its TransUnion database as of the end of May ... and then some.

About $10,000 left over from the donation will be earmarked to buy about $1 million worth of veterans’ medical debt around the country, according to the Ashton brothers, who are both Navy veterans.

Jerry Ashton said that although veterans have access to health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, a veteran facing a medical emergency has the same potential to be saddled with medical debt as any civilian.

“If you hop into an ambulance as a veteran ... it’s not going to be reimbursed,” Jerry Ashton said.

Originally the church planned to buy only veterans’ debts until learning their donation could go further across the state, according to Dale Schaeffer, who served as head pastor of the Medford church until a few weeks ago. Schaeffer, who recently moved to Lakeland, Florida, to oversee 150 churches as district superintendent of the Florida District for the Church of the Nazarene, described the surprise about how far the funds the church raised during its Christmas Eve service could go.

“A small act of generosity can have a multiplied impact,” Schaeffer said. “People underestimate what small acts of generosity can do in people’s lives.”

Schaeffer said he was “blown away” when he learned about the nonprofit’s ties to the Medford area — Jerry Ashton graduated from Medford High School in 1955, and Tom Ashton resides in Phoenix. Schaeffer learned of the nonprofit the same way most others did: a June 5, 2016, episode of the HBO talk show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” in which the show gave the nonprofit $60,000 to buy $15 million in medical debt. Schaeffer said he remembers thinking to himself, “Wow, that’s something that needs to be dealt with.”

He found inspiration for the church’s campaign after reading an April 2018 story about a Dallas-area church that bought $10 million worth of medical debt for veterans with a $100,000 donation to the nonprofit.

“I thought there’s no reason our church couldn’t do that in Oregon,” Schaeffer said.

Dana Franchetti, pastor of the church’s local and global missions, said that when Schaeffer ran it by her and other church leadership, “it was a little bit of a no-brainer for us to say yes to doing it. The amount of good we’re able to do with that little bit of money — it’s incredible.”

Franchetti said she hasn’t heard from any Oregonians about the congregation’s gift yet, but said the church didn’t do it for recognition, but to “live our faith out in a really tangible way.”

“We care about the whole person,” Franchetti said. “We want to see people freed from some of those real burdens.”

Although the church is the first from Southern Oregon to get involved with RIP Medical Debt, churches around the country have partnered with the nonprofit. According to a Kaiser Health News report picked up by People magazine earlier this month, 18 houses of worship have worked with RIP Medical Debt over the past year and a half.

Jerry Ashton, a former medical debt collector who founded the nonprofit after getting involved in New York’s Occupy Wall Street movement, said the nonprofit has abolished more than $700 million in medical debt.

The nonprofit is still scratching the surface of the debt it could buy, Jerry Ashton said. For instance, only a third of hospitals in Oregon sell their medical debt in any capacity. He said the organization is working with New York law firms that specialize in health care to build its case.

Further, as a charity organization, the medical debt marketplace limits the nonprofit to people at twice the poverty level or spending more than 5% of their annual income on health care.

He also envisions buying medical debt directly from specialist clinics or from particularly overwhelmed individuals instead of broad portfolios.

“Would we love to have access to that? You bet,” Jerry Ashton said, adding he’s grateful to have his brother on board.

Tom Ashton said he’s looking forward to helping the nonprofit grow on the West Coast.

“Convincing anybody is tough, but try convincing your family,” Jerry Ashton said. “If people aren’t aware of the problem, then they’re not going to be aware of the solution.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Jerry Ashton, founder of the New York nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, graduated from Medford High School in 1955. Mail Tribune file photo / Nick Morgan
In this Dec. 20, 2018 photo, Reagen Adair holds on to an RIP Medical Debt yellow envelope as she poses for a photo at her home in Murchison, Texas. The co-founders of RIP Medical Debt buy millions of dollars in past-due medical debt for pennies on the dollar. But instead of hounding people to pay, they send letters saying the debt is erased, no strings attached. (AP file photo/Tony Gutierrez)