By Michelle Crouch
At-large Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera is urging Atrium Health to consider working with RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit that buys unpaid medical debt and forgives it.
Ajmera said she reached out to Atrium CEO Gene Woods last month after reading a Charlotte Ledger/NC Health News article about the hospital’s refusal to enter into discussions with RIP.
“I asked them to consider this initiative,” she said. “I really hope that they will consider it because this will help relieve a lot of people … from medical debt.”
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Laura Meier told the Ledger/NC Health News that she, too, would like Atrium to consider working with RIP.
RIP Medical Debt has an unusual model: It buys large bundles of delinquent medical debt from hospitals at a steep discount and sends patients letters forgiving the debt. The program benefits those who earn less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level or whose debts exceed 5 percent of their annual income.
Charlotte’s two big hospital systems — Atrium and Novant — have declined to sell their debt to RIP Medical. They each told the Ledger/NC Health News that they already have robust financial assistance programs to serve patients. Atrium also said that the community would be better served by directing one-time funds toward other programs.
Other hospitals — such as Georgia-based St. Mary’s Health Care System, Connecticut-based Trinity Health and Tennessee-based Ballad Health — have worked with RIP and issued news releases about it.
Ajmera said she also talked to Atrium’s Marcus Kimbrough, who handles government affairs and community engagement in the greater Charlotte area, and asked him to bring the issue before the board of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority. The authority is the public entity that does business as Atrium Health. The board appoints its own members, who must be approved by the chair of the Mecklenburg County Commission.
“I did tell Marcus to at least take it to the board and have them consider it. That’s what I advocated for,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll do it.”
Ajmera acknowledged that the Charlotte City Council lacks the power to tell the hospital system what to do, but she said she felt a responsibility to advocate for the issue as a citizen because medical debt affects so many Charlotte residents.
About 1 in 5 families in Mecklenburg County has medical debt in collections, according to an Urban Institute analysis.
Meier said she, too, thinks the decision about whether Atrium should work with RIP Medical Debt should be made by the hospital authority board.
“They’re the ones who should make the decision. They should hear all sides,” she said. “They are supposed to be public meetings, but I am not sure why it’s such a headache to bring something like that before the board.”
In response to an email asking if the authority board would discuss the topic at its next meeting on Feb. 6, Atrium spokesman Dan Fogleman didn’t answer directly. He replied that working with RIP is not something the hospital intends to pursue. He also sent the following statement:
Atrium Health’s existing financial assistance policies offer robust, equitable and long-term support to patients of all income levels. Our commitments to helping our patients prevent medical debt include charity care and proactively enrolling patients in Medicaid and other health insurance options available to them. We believe our policies and practices afford patients and our communities a better long-term and ongoing solution to addressing and preventing medical debt, as opposed to using a pool of one-time funds that would be rapidly depleted.
Hospital authority board chair Angelique Vincent did not respond to a message from the Ledger/NC Health News.
Fogleman requested that NC Health News/The Ledger not attempt to contact Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority commissioners, who are public officials, and instead route questions through Atrium’s public relations department.
In response to several requests over the past year, Fogleman has told the Ledger/NC Health News that the board’s agenda is not available in advance of the meeting.