RIP Medical Debt has received national TV exposure from its unique proposition: It buys and forgives U.S. medical debt. In late 2018, a smaller campaign driven by two supporters became the nonprofit’s most successful.
For every $100 in donations New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt receives, it’s able to forgive $10,000 in medical debt. The nonprofit uses data to localize campaigns and find the debt most in need of forgiveness. Since RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014, it claims to have eliminated $500 million in medical debt.
Audiences are captivated by RIP Medical Debt’s proposition because of just how many U.S. citizens are crippled by medical debt. A study by the Urban Institute found that the total medical debt owed by U.S. citizens is $1 trillion. Another study by NerdWallet Health finds that almost 2 million new people file for bankruptcy due to unpaid medical bills each year, while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finds that 20% of Americans have at least one medical debt collection item in their credit reports.
“It’s something that unless you are sick or dealing with the issue of debt, it’s easy to think that people do it themselves, that they overextend themselves,” says Daniel Lempert, an account executive at DVM Communications, who has run the PR and communications campaigns for RIP Medical Debt since 2017. “But when it comes to medical debt, no one chooses to get sick. That’s a huge part of the messaging.”
The nonprofit’s captivating proposition has led to plenty of media coverage. Lempert says that the novelty of RIP Medical Debt means the stories are often picked up by TV news stations and local newspapers. Sometimes, RIP Medical Debt’s campaigns go viral—it has been featured on NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver. These shows are opportunities to spread awareness of RIP Medical Debt and ensure that when people receive yellow envelopes in the mail saying that their debt has been paid off, they know that it’s not a scam. “A lot of people assume that it’s just too good to be true, that there really isn’t anyone on their side, which is understandable,” Lempert says.
One recent local campaign, driven by two women in Ithaca, New York, has been one of the most powerful in RIP Medical Debt’s young history. The campaign started small, but contributed mightily to RIP Medical Debt’s goal of empowering donors to forgive billions in medical debt.
RIP Medical Debt often partners with TV news stations that will pay off debt in its coverage area, then do a story on those whose debt they paid. In the case of RIP’s appearance on John Oliver’s HBO show, Oliver wanted to outdo Oprah Winfrey’s 2004 TV record of giving away $7 million—he donated enough money to forgive $15 million worth of medical debt.
But sometimes a local campaign driven by supporters outside network television becomes an even bigger story. In summer 2018, two New York residents—retired chemist Judith Jones and psychoanalyst Carolyn Kenyon—decided to raise money for RIP Medical Debt to create awareness for the New York Health Act, legislation that promises healthcare coverage for every New York resident.
Jones and Kenyon’s campaign was laudable but not unique to RIP Medical debt; there are many similar campaigns driven by supporters, most starting on the nonprofit’s website. Lempert says that anyone can donate to RIP Medical Debt, but some people—Jones and Kenyon among them—create their own local campaigns by filling out a form or sending an inquiry through the nonprofit’s website.
Jones and Kenyon told RIP Medical Debt what upstate New York counties to include in their campaign. The nonprofit told the women they’d need to raise a minimum of $12,500 to trigger a donation that would cover the debt in the area. RIP Medical Debt then gave the two women a URL to a Qgiv page—a website used by nonprofits to accept online donations. The money raised by Jones and Kenyon was bundled into RIP Medical Debt’s next bulk-debt purchase. Within weeks, the nonprofit told Jones and Kenyon that the yellow envelopes would soon be in the mailboxes of people in their communities.
“When it came time to contacting local press, I was happy to source contacts [Jones and Kenyon] couldn’t get their hands on,” Lempert says. “This wasn’t specifically a media campaign, but when there is interest from the organizer, I’m happy to buoy their efforts. And in this case, it was great because the story was really powerful and they are both really interesting individuals.”
The story was also politically timely, as candidates frequently discussed the New York Health Act during the state’s midterm election. Local publications picked the story up, as did The New York Times.
“It created this great ripple effect,” Lempert says, an effect that continued well after the story ran in The New York Times.
Campaigns by RIP Medical Debt supporters like Jones and Kenyon are akin to “playing with house money,” Lempert says. If the story breaks big, great—if not, the money is still donated, the medical debt paid. In this case, the story broke big.
First, the debt: The $12,500 raised by Jones and Kenyon was used to forgive $1.5 million worth of total debt for 1,300 upstate New Yorkers. Then, their campaign led to a December 2018 piece in The New York Times, a newspaper with more than 3 million paid digital subscribers. On the Times’ Facebook post of the article alone, the story was shared 8,500 times; it also received 38,000 reactions and 600 comments. RIP Medical Debt values the media exposure from The New York Times story at about $200,000, which Lempert says could relieve $20 million in medical debt.
In addition to the media exposure, Scott Patton, director of development at RIP Medical Debt, says that the number of new campaigns—those similar to the campaign created by Jones and Kenyon—has been “staggering.” In early January, about a month and a half after the Times article ran, he says that the nonprofit was coordinating nearly 80 requests for new campaigns. This is twice as many requests for new campaigns as RIP Medical Debt had received in the previous 12 months.
Lempert and others working with RIP Medical Debt never truly know what campaigns will go viral, but he believes that there are peaks and valleys to media exposure. “It’s fine to have this explosion of coverage and then to let things calm down a little bit,” he says. “Then, we can do good, important internal work and look at what the next innovation is.” One thing RIP Medical Debt is working on next, Lempert says, is how to further customize debt relief so they can relieve debt for a specific illness just as they can for a specific geographical location. But even without the innovation, untold campaign dollars will be driven by The New York Times story, leading to millions of dollars of relieved medical debt. By offering a simple, almost passive way to allow supporters to start their own local campaigns, RIP Medical Debt has activated its supporters to become its most active fundraisers. The stories of donors have spread and inspired others to start their own campaigns. “I haven’t worked on an account like this where there was so much user-generated interest from people in the community,” Lempert says.
RIP Medical Debt
New York City
New Yorkers Judith Jones and Carolyn Kenyon started raising money in the summer of 2018; The New York Times reported on the story in December 2018.
RIP raised $12,500 and forgave $1.5 million of medical debt in upstate New York; The New York Times story was shared 8,500 times from the newspaper’s Facebook post; RIP received $200,000 in media value and 80 requests for new campaigns since December 2018, twice the number they had received in the previous 12 months.