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How 2 New York Women Erased $1.5 Million In Medical Debt For Hundreds Of Strangers


Some New Yorkers received an early Christmas present this year - a little, yellow envelope that came through the mail, inside, a letter telling the person that their medical debt has been forgiven. This act of kindness comes courtesy of Carolyn Kenyon and Judith Jones, who both live in Ithaca, N.Y. The two friends met through the Finger Lakes chapter of the Campaign for New York Health.

They're both big supporters of a single-payer health system. And they were looking for a project to work on together to highlight the problems with the health care system. They decided on medical debt. For Kenyon, it was personal. The psychotherapist had a client who had to declare bankruptcy because of mounting medical bills.

CAROLYN KENYON: I mean, you couldn't meet a sweeter, kinder, harder-working person. That touched my heart and was part of my motivation to raise the money for the debt relief.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kenyon believes a person recovering from a serious illness or accident shouldn't be hounded by creditors.

KENYON: No one in this country should experience medical debt. And how it affects their lives, their credit record - it can prevent them from getting employment, prevent them from getting mortgage. They should not be experiencing that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Inspired, the two women sent emails to friends and family. And they raised $12,500. From there, they turned to R-I-P Medical Debt, a non-profit that leveraged that money to forgive $1.5 million worth of medical debt for New Yorkers. Jones says it's been a real learning experience, especially how it affects young adults just starting out in life.

JUDITH JONES: These are the young people who have just come off their parents' health insurance. They have chosen not to buy a policy. They may be well-saddled with their college debt. And they get that illness or that accident. And now they have enormous amount of medical debt on top of their college debt. And that's just no way to start a life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jones says they've gotten good feedback on their efforts.

JONES: From a lot of friends and even acquaintances and people I don't even know who are telling us that they know someone who - not who got the letter but who is struggling with the problem of medical debt. And so it's felt rewarding.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So rewarding, in fact, that they're once again joining forces on a new fundraising campaign, this time focused on veterans.

JONES: We're actually in the process of setting this up today. We think that a lot of people don't understand that veterans accumulate a great deal of serious debt and that that also is a detriment to establishing a new life. So we have a project that is now labeled Cure Vet Debt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So more yellow envelopes will be headed to mailboxes sometime next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Carolyn Kenyon
Judith Jones