“How in any civilized country can you allow someone to go bankrupt just because they got sick?”

Around 100 million Americans struggle with medical debt. A single illness can force a person without private insurance into debt for the rest of their lives. Long after they’ve left the hospital, an unpaid bill can follow a person who struggles to put food on the table, much less pay for medical procedures that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Here in the US, we have a profit making system that we call healthcare,” says Jerry Ashton.

And he should know. Ashton used to be a debt collector. He spent his days knocking on doors and calling people at home. Day in and day out, he chased after money for hospitals, badgering people to pay their medical bills.

The problem was, day in and day out, he would get the same answer from those he was calling. They simply didn’t have the money—and that’s why their astronomical medical bills were unpaid in the first place. Unless a drastic reversal of fortune happened, they wouldn’t ever have that money.

A Game They Couldn’t Win

Ashton quickly became disenchanted with the system, and he wasn’t alone. His colleague Craig Antico was frustrated, too. They worked for a debt collection agency, which was given a portfolio of unpaid medical bills by a hospital. Their job was to collect on these debts, for which the debt agency would get a part of the profits.

If a particular file was consuming too much time and energy, the agency would sell it to a debt buyer at a tenth—or even a hundredth—of its face value, just to get partial payment. The debt buyer, in turn, was entitled to collect the full amount of the debt. The true loser in the equation was the debtor, who still had the full bill to pay.

As Ashton puts it, “Everybody along the way gets a piece of a patient’s action.”

Ashton and Antico were tired of grinding away at disadvantaged individuals in the name of profit-mongering medical establishments. Of the opinion that medical debt should be abolished, the two decided to go to the source.

The Tables of the Debt Collectors Are Turned

Ashton and Antico founded RIP Medical Debt, a charity organization that’s heading off debt buyers and grabbing those deeply discounted medical bills for themselves. But instead of trying to claim the amount, they write the debtor a friendly letter letting them know they’re off the hook.

“I was suspicious at first,” says Cherie Sharp, a lucky recipient of such a letter forgiving her medical debt. “It just seemed too good to be true.” But the letter was real. RIP Medical Debt had purchased Sharp’s debt—and erased it. “It was just such a wonderful gesture, a bright spot in a sea of negativity.”

Sharp had been struggling under enormous debt. She couldn’t sleep at night and was taking antidepressants. She was the sort of person that Ashton and Antico used to harass on a regular basis. Now, they were in a position to help her—and millions of others like her.

Empowered to Relieve Debt

(CBS)

“I wrote blogs and articles telling collectors what jerks they were and how they should change their ways,” says Ashton of the first steps he took to buck the system.

But it wasn’t until he took concrete action and founded RIP Medical Debt that he was empowered to do something about it. Now, instead of being the bearer of bad news, he delivers relief and, often, pure joy.

Ashton’s aha moment came when he attended an Occupy Wall Street protest. It was there that he learned the true scale of the problem of medical debt. “How in any civilized country can you allow someone to go bankrupt just because they got sick?” Ashton asked himself. “I walked into Occupy as a debt collector, and walked out as a debt forgiver.”

Ashton and Antico’s brainchild, RIP Medical Debt, is in its tenth year of operation. They’ve wiped over $8 billion worth of medical bills for over 5 million families. In Ashton’s words, “They [the families] never have to worry about this debt again.”

A Never-Ending Mission

Ashton has since retired from RIP Medical Death (although he still sits on the organization’s board of directors). But he’s far from retired from his mission of doing good in the world.

Instead, Ashton launched Let’s Rethink This, an organization that supports others with innovative, impactful projects. The goal of Let’s Rethink This is to shine light on others doing good in the world and to rally support behind solution-finders. Let’s Rethink This identifies, in their words, “the movers and the shakers”.

Current campaigns include disrupting the system of pharmaceutical funding, reducing suicide among veterans, and providing more equitable lending programs for impoverished women in India.

Slowly but surely, the system of crippling debt is being turned on its head—by two former debt collectors.