THE BLOG
11/12/2013 05:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Reflecting on Rescuing Stranded Starfish and Abolishing Medical Debt

What was it like to open up a letter announcing that the burden of a large medical debt had been taken away?

"I was dumbfounded," replies Terrance Lavalle, referring to a letter he received in November from Occupy Wall Street's working group, "The Rolling Jubilee."

Not to mention also a bit dubious.

"Not too many people are still around who will do such good things," he added. So, just to be sure that he was not the victim of a prank, he took the letter to a banker friend to verify its authenticity. After a brief research of the website, the banker turned to him to say, "Yes, they are legitimate."

Extrapolating from Terrance's response, that same incredulity must have been among the many emotions that some 2,692 other people (owing an aggregate of $13,500,000 in medical debt across 45 states and Puerto Rico) who received that letter and its greeting:

"We are writing you with good news. The Rolling Jubilee fund, a non-profit organization, has purchased (the debt owed). The mission of this project is to buy and abolish personal debt, as it is our belief that no one should have to go into debt for the basic things in our lives such as healthcare, housing and education."

The letter continues... "You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else... If you have any further questions or you are willing to share your story please contact us. We believe more people need to know about the injustice of medical debt and hope to hear from you."

And, that is exactly what Terrance did. He dialed that number and shared his story. After all, he was getting back on his feet, and this seeming gift from nowhere was going to make that return a little less rocky. To put voice to his appreciation seemed to be the least he could do for these good Samaritans of the Occupy Movement.

Terrance's personal opinion? "You guys are fantastic. Keep doing this great work."

Terrance was in his mid-50's, homeless, jobless and living out of his truck in Massachusetts when he slipped and fell on icy pavement "a while back." He checked into the emergency room of a local hospital, was diagnosed as having a concussion, and admitted. What accompanied him out the door a day or so later - in spite of the vaunted Romneycare safety net, was a bill for $3,000.

"Nobody should be forced into debt because they slipped on some ice in a Massachusetts winter," complained Rolling Jubilee (RJ) organizer Thomas Gokey.

"Terrance exemplifies many of the reasons that brought RJ into existence. Here is a person who worked hard all his life, spent 23 years as a field mechanic for Caterpillar Tractor, a father and a grandfather, a Union Man - and whose medical conditions even prior to his fall had put him out of work and in debt to the medical industry."

Ah yes, the medical industry: the complex that generates enough unpaid debt for its "clientele" that fully 60% of all bankruptcies can be attributed, in large part, to unpaid medical services. One in seven Americans is presently being pursued by bill collectors - and the bulk of their work is that of chasing after medical debt.

Not exactly bad news for another, little-known industry which feeds off the misfortune of one who has taken ill or suffered an accident and makes billions doing so - the debt buyer.

The industry business model depends on patient defaults and the inability of the medical practice or hospital to collect these debts. Debt buyers buy these "written-off" receivables for pennies on the dollar, and then go out to the collections industry to sell them off at a profit.

Agencies and attorneys, in turn, proceed to relentlessly pursue these accounts to squeeze out the last possible dollar to add to their bottom line.

This caught the attention of Occupy's Strike Debt! working group and parent to Rolling Jubilee. Strike Debt! is a nationwide movement comprised of debt resistors of all stripes: those who rally against banks and credit cards, those who fight foreclosures, those who skirmish with debt collectors, and those who are burdened by school debt.

But, its organizers agreed that the single greatest injustice was that of medical debt. Establishing RJ as a nonprofit, and with the goal of attracting $50,000 in donations to enable this group to go into the debt selling industry to buy a $1,000,000 in debt, an Internet "Telethon" was cobbled together and a campaign was kicked off at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC's West Village on November 15, 2012.

They blew past the $50,000 goal in the blink of an eye.

Some $600,000 has been raised since this ambitious start barely a year ago. This, in turn, has enabled a series of buys in medical debt to be purchased and abolished totaling $14,700,000. Through the RJ intervention, these are bills that will never have to be paid; bills that will never generate another phone call from a debt collector; bills that can be removed from a credit report.

Terrance's debt was just a small - but fortunate for him - part of the RJ purchase

Because of the compelling "goodness" of this campaign, and fueled by personal stories of people like Terrance, Strike Debt groups have been growing across the country. Austin, the SF Bay Area, NYC and other cities will be holding events on November 15 to commemorate these achievements and spread the word.

"With the Rolling Jubilee, we've demonstrated how little your debts are actually worth, and ... now it's time to use (this knowledge) as leverage," Gokey offered. "It's time to fight back. The Rolling Jubilee needs to roll into larger forms of resistance and outright non-cooperation with Walls Street's unjust debts."

As the Rolling Jubilee website proclaims, "We are proud to be offering a lifeline to debtors who fell victim to the horror of medical debt. A society that allows the creditor class to profit from the basic requirements of life is in need of a radical overhaul."

Which leads back to stranded starfish

Terrance's fortune is reflected in the story of the two men walking along a beach after a major storm. One man would sporadically stop to pick up a stranded shellfish to throw it far back into the sea.

"Why do you bother doing that?" the first man questioned. "With all these hundreds of beached starfish, what difference do you think throwing this one back will make?"

His friend leaned over to pick up another and throw it far out into the surf and responded, "Well, it made a difference for that one."