Jared Walker has been making waves since January by exposing a little-known law that can help low-income patients avoid taking on medical debt. He’s been posting about the issue on TikTok to show people how they can get non-profit hospitals to forgive their debt if they make under a certain amount. It’s giving a whole new meaning to the term “patient empowerment.”
Cashing in on Charity
Walker wasn’t involved in healthcare until he received some devastating news about his family. He was managing a couple of trampoline parks in Portland, OR when he heard that his aunt had died of cancer and one of his cousins had given birth prematurely and the infant would need life-saving heart surgery.
Unfortunately, he was surprised at how quickly the conversation turned to money.
“I mean, the bills hadn’t even come through yet, but…that was a big part of the conversation,” he told NPR. “I just thought, well, that seems dumb. Like, why are we talking about that?”
At first, he decided to raise money from the community to help pay for people’s medical bills in the event of an emergency, but soon, a local lawyer told him about the charity care policy, which says that non-profit hospitals must reduce, if not forgive, the cost of medical care for low-income patients.
Walker was surprised, to say the least. “And I’m thinking, what the hell have I been doing this whole time? We’re changing our model real quick.”
As he started spreading the word, his sister, Grace, encouraged him to get on TikTok. Earlier this year, he posted his first video to tell people about the charity care policy, outlining steps they can take to reduce their medical debt.
Most hospitals are non-profit, which means “if you make under a certain amount of money, the hospital will legally have to forgive your medical bills,” Walker says in the video. He ends the clip by encouraging people to reach out if they need help navigating the charity care process.
The post quickly went viral. “The video had, like, 50,000 views. And then in the next, like, 10 minutes, it had 100,000 views,” he said.
To use the charity care policy, he tells his viewers to type the name of the facility along with “financial assistance” into a search engine. Next, he says to look for a copy of the hospital’s financial assistance policy, including whether it uses a sliding scale. This should tell people how much assistance they may qualify for. They can then apply for assistance at the facility to help relieve their medical debt.
Mission vs. Profit
It’s true that most hospitals have a charity care policy, which is covered under the Affordable Care Act, but many don’t make this option visible to patients, forcing them to pay the full cost of care, regardless of their income. Keith Hearle, who advises hospitals on how to comply with the charity care law, says it’s not always feasible to reduce the cost of care.
“There’s definitely a tension between mission and margin,” he said. “If you give away too much, that means the hospital may actually lose money. And over time, that means the organization won’t grow and be able to meet community needs down the road.”
He says some hospitals do a better job of utilizing the charity care policy than others, but it often depends on their bottom line. Some facilities will even target and reach out to low-income patients to notify them of this option.
“Why are we going to spend the money – staffing, collections agency, all that, those resources – to go after collecting bills where we just know that it’s unlikely that we’re going to actually collect anything?” Hearle added.
Since going viral, Walker has created Dollar For, a non-profit that helps patients get rid of their debt. The group has already eliminated over $5 million in outstanding medical bills.
“Our biggest effort is expressed in our Debt Forgiveness program, in which we enforce the hospital’s Charity Care policies. In order for hospitals to keep their nonprofit status, they have to have programs in place that aid families without incomes large enough to cover their medical expenses, called Charity Care,” the website reads.
Walker says he’s received thousands of messages from patients struggling to get rid of their medical debt, and now he’s helping them utilize the charity care policy.
Dollar For is accepting volunteers and donations.