Gail Briggs of South Holland is cancer-free after two bouts of life-threatening diseases in recent years, but her recoveries were nearly overshadowed by financial ruin.
Briggs faced thousands of dollars worth of unpaid medical bills after she lost her job and health insurance following her breast cancer treatments in 2008. While she eventually obtained new employment, hospital bills continued to pour in during her treatments for colon cancer in 2013.
“It was just too much. I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Briggs said. “It was so stressful, you know, me trying to keep up with everything.”
Briggs said her medical debt was made even worse by calls from debt collectors.
“You can be anywhere at any time. At work, wherever, and the phone just constantly rings. You don’t know which one is it going to be,” Briggs said.
Briggs said she made payments to collectors, but the fear of increasing her debt made her hesitant to schedule follow-up visits to the doctor.
She made the decision to file for bankruptcy in 2017, in part due to her medical debt.
“I’m used to being able to take care of myself,” Briggs said. “When it was time to go to court, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Briggs is not alone.
Medical debt is a leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Nearly one in five Americans have delinquent medical debt on their credit reports. That includes 1.2 million people in the Chicago area who owe nearly $1 billion, according to data compiled by Mike Antico of RIP Medical Debt.
“You’re one illness away or accident away from financial ruin in this country,” Antico said.
Antico is a former debt collector who said debt can be bought and sold for pennies on the dollar. For example, a collection agency can spend ten dollars to purchase $1,000 worth of debt. Yet, the collectors will still attempt to get the full amount from people who owe the debt.
RIP Medical Debt, however, is using donations to purchase debt portfolios identifying people who need the most help.
“It’s not any fault of their own that these people got into debt,” Antico said. “That’s why I feel so comfortable buying and getting rid of debt for the people that are the hardest hit.”
NBC 5 and our parent company, the NBC Universal Owned Television Stations, have made a donation to RIP Medical Debt that will be used to buy and forgive $2 million worth of medical debt for people in the Chicago area. If you would like to help others pay off their medical debt, click here. A ten dollar donation could abolish $100 worth of medical debt.
Still, people cannot sign up or apply to receive help from RIP Medical Debt. The non-profit will send you a yellow envelope with the RIP Medical Debt logo if you meet its requirements.
Briggs said bankruptcy has given her a fresh start. But even with insurance, she said fear of future medical bills weighs heavily on her.