Hundreds of Bay Area residents received unexpected emails earlier in October informing them that they are no longer responsible for paying back certain outstanding medical debts.
The local organization, Strike Debt Bay Area, or SDBA, partnered with the New York-based organization RIP Medical Debt as well as clinical psychologist Harvey Bilik. Together, they purchased and canceled about $1.6 million in defaulted medical bills for 753 Bay Area locals.
“We are pleased to inform you that you no longer owe the balance on the debt referenced above to the above provider” read the email sent by RIP Medical Debt to recipients. “Our forgiveness of the amount you owe is a no-strings-attached gift. You no longer have any obligation to pay this debt to anyone, at any future time.”
Most of the donations, which averaged $98, came from within activist circles related to SDBA. Other donations came from social media campaigns and forms of online traffic. The debt forgiveness campaign raised a total of around $15,000, which RIP Medical Debt then used to purchase the outstanding balances for pennies on the dollar in local debt markets.
The $700 raised within Berkeley City Council purchased about $90,000 in debts, according to Berkeley District 4 City Councilmember Kate Harrison, who sponsored a resolution in support of the campaign. She added that the average amount of debt abolished for Alameda County residents was about $3,000.
“For that person living on the edge, that is everything … the amount of pain and anguish caused by that is incalculable,” Harrison said. “We will not get out of this box as long as we have privately funded healthcare this way.”
Strike Debt Bay Area has followed in the footsteps of the original group, which came out of the 2012 Occupy Wall Street movement, according to JP Massar, a SDBA activist.
RIP Medical debt has partnered with different organizations and individuals across the country for similar acts of medical debt forgiveness. According to an SDBA press release, the recent Bay Area campaign follows on the heels of campaigns in Florida, New York and Michigan which erased debts upwards of $5 million.
Bilik decided to start fundraising for RIP Medical Debt after reading about them in the news. He and SDBA joined their efforts after becoming aware that they were both fundraising in the Bay Area.
“I do not think that you need to be a medical professional in order to be aware of and disgusted by the stunning inequities around who can and who cannot obtain adequate health care,” Bilick said in an email. “There are powerful stakeholders in the current system whose income derive from the status quo, and who work to prevent meaningful change …”
A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed information on past anti-debt legislation to Strike Debt Bay Area activist JP Massar. In fact, Massar provided background on the Strike Debt Bay Area organization, not on legislative background.