Comedian, talk show host and all round top bloke John Oliver can now add philanthropist to his name after buying, then forgiving, 15 million USD in medical debt.
On Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver unpacked the poorly regulated industry of ‘debt buying’ in the United States. In a process he described as “disturbingly easy” Oliver created a debt-buying company for just $50. He then used his new company to buy $15 million worth of debt and then write it off. Technically, this makes him the proud record holder of ‘the single biggest giveaway’ in American history, beating out Oprah’s famous and much parodied “YOU GET A CAR” bonanza in 2004.
If you’re Australian you might be a bit confused by the whole situation. How is it even possible to buy debt? The issue comes down to the different systems of healthcare in Australia and the United States. Let me explain.
When you get sick in Australia you:
- Go to bulk billing GP
- 100% consultation paid by Medicare/ the government
But if you get sick in the US:
- Go to GP
- If you have insurance pay $69 on average for your consultation
- If you don’t have insurance pay on average $104 for your consultation
And that’s just to see a doctor – the costs skyrocket if you have a serious or chronic health condition. Often these debts expire (America has 496 billion dollars in expired debts) and are written off as tax deductions by the banks and loan companies who own them. But that doesn’t stop them from also cheaply selling off these so-called ‘zombie debts’ to debt-collection companies.
While some debt-collection agencies use illegal, strong-arm tactics to collect on expired debts, the majority of agencies exploit people using legal loopholes. For instance, if a debt-collection agency files a lawsuit against you, and you don’t turn up to the court date, then they win by default. This industry is so prolific that in some states the majority of lawsuits are filed by debt-collectors chasing people for expired debts.
It cost John Oliver under $60,000 to purchase the $15 million worth of medical debts. And while that 60K is unlikely to buy you a house anywhere in Australia, it allowed Oliver to waive the debts of around 9,000 Americans. That’s 9,000 ordinary people who were unlucky enough to get a serious illness their insurance wouldn’t cover, or were too poor to take out insurance in the first place. Life is difficult enough without being terrorised by expired debts.
To be clear – Oliver doesn’t think that no one should have to pay debts. If you have debts, and the ability to pay them off then you should. But as Oliver points out, “some debts are completely unavoidable.”