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Lives on the Line: Strike Debt Takes Aim at the Heart of Wall Street

On Saturday, April 20th Strike Debt  spoke at the TEDMED conference hosted by the Brooklyn Free Clinic at the Gowanus Ballroom. Strike Debt is an ongoing campaign that calls out the debt system as one of the roots of economic injustice. In November, they launched a campaign called the Rolling Jubilee, which buys and abolishes people’s medical debt. To date, they have abolished over one million dollars of medical debt.

Strike Debt’s presentation came after a successful day of action a few weeks prior where they offered a free healthcare clinic and organized a march to St. Vincent’s hospital in the West Village, which was closed due to debt and is now being turned into high end condos.

In their speech at TEDMED, Strike Debt traces the roots of the debt crisis to Wall Street with heart-wrenching stories of many Americans who find themselves in debt often due sickness, despite the fact that they had health insurance, and calls on healthcare professionals to join in the movement to put people before profits.

Full Transcript of Strike Debt’s Speech at TEDMED

Life or Debt: Has For-profit Health Care Turned Your Friends into Amateur Surgeons?

We are not doctors, we are not nurses, we are not health care administrators, we are not from the insurance industry, we are not policy experts and we certainly never intended to be health care activists. So how did a few everyday people end up opening the TEDMED conference today?

Over a year ago, we met while occupying Wall Street: united in our anger against growing inequality, our disappointment with corrupt and failing institutions and tired of living in a society where the majority are exploited for the benefit of a few.  In the midst of what looked like chaos, we began sharing our stories and we realized our collective power.

Then we were evicted, so... we just moved to another park.  And the conversations became focused.  We realized the intersection between us and Wall Street was our debt.  The very debts we incur just to meet our basic needs: housing, health and food - were the bread and butter of Wall Street.

So we self-organized—without government, without experts—we joined the global anti-austerity movement and called ourselves Strike Debt.

Today. we’re honored to be here with so many dedicated health care practitioners and experts. We don’t claim to know what you face everyday in your clinics and hospitals. But we’re here because we have learned something about what happens to patients after they leave your office.

And we’re here to challenge you to organize with your colleagues and your patients to end medical debt and to work together to create a health care system that benefits everyone.

First, let me tell you a little more about Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee initiative.

The first thing to know is that debt is bought and sold for pennies on the dollar on a shady secondary market full of debt buyers and collectors. If you have consumer debt, for example, and you go into default, the lender can sell your debt for a fraction of its original value (giving themselves a sweet tax write off) and then debt collectors try to collect the full amount from you, the debtor.

Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee fund purchases this debt. But instead of collecting on it like a collector would, we just abolish it.

When we first announced the RJ campaign back in November, we were flooded with thousands of emails from people in debt. Many were asking for help that we can’t provide, since all debt is sold in anonymous bundles. But many others just wanted to share their stories. While it isn’t surprising that we got so many letters (after all three quarters of Americans are in some kind of debt), we did not expect so many people to write to us about medical debt. We want to share some of those stories with you today.

From New York

Sickness can destroy you in America. Both my partner and I had full-time jobs when I got sick.  Though we had insurance, we did not have family leave. When you're on chemotherapy six days per week, there's no way you can keep your job. Then, two years later, my partner got sick. Even though we had health care, a bad situation became a crisis. When our savings ran out, there was no safety net for us. Who has an emergency fund to last nine months? What if you have to tap it twice? We began living on credit cards. I think people have a lot of assumptions about how people get into credit card debt. For us, it was how we survived during the most difficult time in our lives. The fact is that insurance doesn't cover everything, and you can't work if you're sick. Even people with health care are affected by medical costs. We'll be paying off our credit card debt into retirement. We can't save for our child's college or plan for the future. People who have insurance and a little money in the bank think nothing bad is going to happen to them. But what happened to us can happen to them too. It can happen to anyone.

From New York

In 1996, while insured by United Healthcare, I had to undergo open heart surgery.  Serious stuff-- your circulation is diverted to a machine, your ribs opened up, your body is cooled to about 70 degrees, and your heart is stopped and cut open. I was anesthetized twice (the first attempt was botched - a tube caused internal bleeding, making the operation impossible).  The operation itself was successful.  And then the billing problems began. United Healthcare refused to pay for the second anesthesia because by their rules, they only pay for 1 anesthesia for this operation.  For more than 6 months US Healthcare continued refusing to pay, and Mt Sinai Hospital continued to bill me directly for more than $4,000.  And the in-network surgeon billed me directly for the half of his fee that United Healthcare wouldn't pay (which was another $2,500). I'm mighty bullheaded, so I wrote plenty of letters. United Healthcare finally did pay up. But what if I didn't know I could fight it, as so many people might not?

From Florida

I am a 29 year old teacher in a low income area in Florida. I know that this movement is a movement that aides people at random, but I felt compelled to email today after a lesson with my kids.  We were learning about speaking up even when it's not popular, to speak truth and say what is right.  As I worked and listened with my students I tried to communicate what I was experiencing as well.  My wife and I are both teachers, saddled with student loans.  My wife recently had testing done for an over active thyroid.  We have medical debt.  She is also expecting our first child and we are scared out of our minds. How can we afford the added expenses and pay off our debt?  We fear we will not be able to give our little girl a stable healthy life.  We need help. We have turned to banks, credit is tight and only leads to more debt. We can't turn to our parents - they're struggling just as much as we are. We're scared.  We're lost.  We don't know what to do.

We received many letters like these. We heard from debtors whose lives had been ruined by one grim diagnosis. We heard from people who had lost their homes or who had to empty their retirement accounts to take care of a sick family member. We realized that medical debt is debt we incur, in many cases, for the privilege of staying alive.

Wet got so many letters about medical debt that we decided to focus our first major debt purchase on medical debt and to build a campaign around it. Recently, we purchased a 1.2 million dollar portfolio of medical debt for about $21,000 and abolished the medical debt of over 1,000 people. We sent letters to every debtor letting them know that their debt had been abolished and they no longer have to pay it.  We also started doing research on medical debt, uncovering some facts that many of you probably already know.

Fifty million Americans have no insurance and 77 million have trouble paying medical bills. That number has grown exponentially in recent years. Today, an astonishing 62% of personal bankruptcies are linked to medical debt. And most of those people had private insurance at the time they got sick.

So why do Americans have so much debt?

Our economy is controlled by the wealthy and by an investor class that gambled our resources and stole our futures. All of the things we need to survive like education, housing, and health care are being privatized to profit a few at the expense of the rest of us.

What has this meant for health care? The US spends more on care than any other wealthy country in the world. Our for-profit health care industry costs more than twice what countries that have publicly-financed care spend. Despite the high cost, Americans are sicker and die younger than people in other nations.

Moreover, medical debt illustrates how debt has spiraling effect. Once people get into debt for a basic need like health care, other debts follow. People put medical bills on their credit cards.  And those with medical debt are more likely to lose their homes to foreclosure.

Why can’t private insurance protect us?

What we learned by talking to debtors and health care practitioners around the country is that our profit-based system has already failed. This is why Affordable Care Act, which will expand this failed market, cannot solve the problem.

Dr. David Himmelstein of Physicians for a National Health Program (one of our allies in the fight to end medical debt) has said that “private insurance is like an umbrella that melts in the rain. It simply isn’t there when you need it most.”

What Can We Do?

The Rolling Jubilee is not a solution. It’s only intended to help a few and to highlight the problem. Where RJ falls short is where you come in.

Wall Street has infiltrated the health care industry and you’re on the front lines. Health care is a basic need and a human right. Making sure everyone gets the care they need regardless of their ability to pay is, quite simply, a question of justice.

How can questions of justice and human rights be addressed in your practice? That’s up to you.  But we don’t believe there are any individual solutions.

Instead, we must act collectively because we are all debtors. Many of you no doubt have debt yourselves - maybe even for the education that helped you get into this room in the first place.

Our experience watching social movements around the globe and building Strike Debt has taught us that there is power in collective action. Appealing to politicians - the same politicians who are funded by Wall Street - is not the answer.

Many of your patients leave your hospitals and clinics unable to pay for the care they received. And many of them feel ashamed because they believe it is their fault.

We’re here to challenge you to change the conversation you have with your patients and let them know that, in fact, the system has failed them.

To create a health care system that benefits all of us, we need a new economy, one in which our debts are to each other, our families, and our communities, not Wall Street.

That’s why we believe that the only real solution to our national health care crisis is a bottom-up, grassroots movement to put people before profits. We hope you’ll join us in the fight. The time is now. It’s up to us. It’s life or debt.

Photos by Craig O'Connor, @ccojr.
Strike Debt and Linnea M. Palmer Paton

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