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Why this ex-collections agent wants to forgive US veterans’ medical debt

After helping dismiss $10bn for average Americans, Jerry Ashton moves toward a community dear to his heart.

One of the founders of a non-profit that forgave more than $10bn in medical debt said he has a new goal: to convince the US government to forgive $6bn in debt it holds against military veterans.

Jerry Ashton, a former debt collector who was inspired by the occupy Wall Street movement, co-founded RIP Medical Debt. He has since retired from that non-profit, but it has taken on a life of its own: it surpassed its original $1bn goal in 2020, and has now forgiven $10bn and counting, affecting 7 million Americans.

Now, Ashton said he hopes to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to forgive the debts of veterans, much of which is accumulated from medical services and overpaid benefits. His new non-profit, End Veteran Debt (EVD), is expected to launch on Friday.

“The wrong is unpaid medical debt sitting on [the VA’s] books that needs to be forgiven. … They will never collect a dime on it, and it’s harmful,” he said, adding that debt exacerbates the mental and financial stresses veterans face already.

Ashton said he had not yet heard from the VA, which is the largest integrated medical system in the US, providing care across 1,300 medical facilities including 172 medical centers. By comparison, the largest corporate hospital chain in the US is HCA Healthcare, which operates 184 hospitals and 2,000 “care sites”.

Veterans are “heavily impacted” by medical debt, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). As of 2022, the CFPB said the VA holds $382m in medical debt against 875,000 veterans.

If those medical fees remain unpaid, they can become debt that the VA reports to credit agencies. A poor credit score can impair a person’s ability to secure housing or a job, since landlords, banks and employers all use credit scores.

The VA can also cause medical debt – for example, when a veteran gets treatment at a non-VA facility, believing the care will be covered; veterans may owe co-pays or fees if they are treated at a VA facility too. If the vet does not pay those medical bills, they become debt.

Errors in disability payments can also lead to veteran debt. The VA recently suspended debt collection against an estimated 10,000 older and lower-income veterans on pensions, whom it said had been overpaid over the course of a decade.

“Inadvertently, through policies that weren’t thrown out or should have been updated, we have a problem,” said Ashton, who is also a navy veteran. “The problem can very easily be taken care of – we’re not asking for legislation at EVD, we’re asking for a change in policy.”

Jessica Glenza

Jessica Glenza is the health reporter for Guardian US. Twitter @JessicaGlenza.

EndVetMedDebt is licensed under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) 4.0 License.