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Mercer initiative aims to retire medical debt for the poor

July 11, 2021 GMT

MACON, Ga. (AP) — A new initiative at the Mercer University School of Medicine conceived by a retired federal judge is helping poor people in rural Georgia erase their medical debt.

The Mercer Family Cares Initiative, funded by three families with ties to the university, is retiring more than $4.3 million in medical debt for nearly 3,000 people who live in 33 Georgia counties, according to a news release from the university.

The idea came from retired U.S. District Judge William Duffey, who served in the northern district of Georgia and was previously a partner at King & Spalding law firm in Atlanta, after he noticed inflated prices for items on his own medical bills. He did some research and found that the system is needlessly confusing and fraught with undue and unreasonable expenses, particularly for those who are least able to pay.

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“I’ve always wondered how people navigate the system, especially those who didn’t have the patience, time or resources,” Duffey said in the news release.

Mercer’s medical school works on issues related to access to medical care in rural Georgia, and Duffey reached out to two friends who had graduated from Mercer Law, one a current university trustee and one a former trustee, to see about helping to resolve medical debt for people living in poverty.

While he believes in personal financial responsibility, Duffey said it’s rarely someone’s choice to rack up medical debt.

“When you’re sick, have an accident or suffer from disease, you have to get care,” he said. “So, it’s an involuntary imposition of a debt on someone. That debt imposes a particularly harsh barrier for the poor.”

Through his research, he found RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization that uses donations to buy up medical debt at discounted rates to relieve that debt without tax consequences for the recipients and with a tax benefit to donors, the release says.

Duffey’s son, Charles, is chief operating officer for Mercer’s Medicine, which has rural health clinics in several counties.

William Duffey asked RIP Medical Debt to total up the medical debt available for purchase for those living in poverty in the counties where the university’s rural health care clinics are found and in the neighboring counties.

Duffey and his wife, Betsy, joined with Doc and Helen Schneider and Dwight and Brenda Davis, to donate money to erase more than $4.3 million in debt, with an average of about $1,500 per person among 2,866 people, the release says.

Dr. Jean Sumner, dean of Mercer’s medical school, said it’s an honor for the school to be part of such an important initiative.

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“The Mercer Family Cares Initiative and those who support this effort may not fully comprehend the transformational impact this program will have on the lives of patients, access to care and the health of Georgians in need,” Sumner said in the release.

Duffey has already worked with RIP Medical Debt to identify more than $13 million in medical debt owed by people living in Fulton County that could be retired with donations totaling about $200,000, the release says. Considering the high salaries earned by many lawyers, Duffey is calling on the county’s legal community to donate.

“I’m going to propose that the lawyers in Fulton County collectively donate $200,000 to retire the medical debt of every poor person in Fulton County,” he said. “Frankly, I think if I went back to RIP Medical Debt and said, ‘Tell me what the collective medical debt is for poor people throughout Georgia,’ that lawyers could retire it all with the stroke of a pen. Well, maybe several pens.”