Long Story $hort: Season 2, Episode 2

How Dollar For is Helping People Crush Medical Debt

Jared Walker believes that a medical emergency shouldn’t be followed by a financial emergency. After watching his family go through a medical crisis, Jared founded Dollar For, a national nonprofit that crushes medical bills by empowering patients and advocating on their behalf.

In this episode, Jared will share more about Dollar For and explain Charity Care, medical debt, and how you can overcome expensive hospital bills.

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Jared Walker.

Show Notes

  • Guest: Jared Walker
  • Host: Adam Walker
  • Publication Date: March 21, 2023


1:47 | Jared discusses the personal medical and financial challenges that led him to create Dollar For.

4:58 | Jared talks about the viral TikTok that brought Dollar For and medical debt into the national spotlight.

8:42 | Jared explains how charity care works and who's eligible.

10:34 | Jared shares his top tips for overcoming big medical bills.

Episode Transcript

Adam Walker: Debt. We've all heard of it, most of us have it. Debt is an almost unavoidable reality of life. But what happens when it starts consuming life?

The experts at Money Management International believe that financial challenges aren't meant to be faced alone. On this podcast, we hear stories of peoples whose lives have been changed by MMI's role as their toughest coach and loudest cheerleader.

Their stories are unique, personal, and inspiring. So stay tuned because we're sharing each guest's Long Story Short.

Jared Walker believes that a medical emergency shouldn't be followed by a financial emergency. After watching his family go through a medical crisis, Jared founded Dollar For, a national nonprofit that crushes medical bills by empowering patients and advocating on their behalf. Here today to share more about Dollar For and teach us about charity care, medical debt, and how you can overcome expensive hospital bills, is Jared Walker.

Jared, welcome to the show.

Jared Walker: Hey, hey, thanks for having me, appreciate it.

Adam Walker: I am, I'm excited to talk to you about this cause I'm not gonna lie, I've had, we've had our share of family medical bills over the last couple years and I feel like there's a lot I can learn in this area. So, this is gonna be a great show.

Let's start off, tell me a little bit more about your story and how you founded and, why you founded Dollar For.

Jared Walker: So, yeah, I started Dollar For… Take you back to 2012, my wife and I were sitting at home. She got a phone call, her aunt had passed away from cancer, and then a few minutes later I got a phone call. My cousin had gone into labor seven weeks premature, baby needed a heart surgery to live. So both of our families, same time, same hour, were hit with medical crises. And I remember talking to my mom and, you know, she was saying, I don't know how, you know, we're gonna pay for it. And that was the, that was the conversation. And in my family's circumstance, like it all, it all worked out, you know, and I just remember being so frustrated. That, that was the conversation that we were having. Like instead of focusing on health or, you know, it was just like, how, how do we pay for, for this thing that happened that like we had, you know, we weren't expecting at all. And I wanted to help people in that situation, you know, how can we hopefully relieve the financial burden that comes from a medical crisis?

So I started Dollar For Portland, actually. So I grew up from Portland, Oregon, and the whole idea was that we would crowdfund to help people pay medical bills. And I started, you know, putting up these little campaigns, getting people to sign up for small reoccurring monthly donations. And every month we'd pool the money together and, pay medical bills for people in our community. So it was very grassroots, and a few years go by and I'm doing this work and it's kind of like a side thing and you know, having fun trying to, trying to grow this organization. And I run into this attorney and he asked, Hey, have you ever read 501r, and do you know about charity care and financial assistance?

And I'm sitting there like, I have no idea what you're talking about. And, and that was when he told me, you know, there's a federal law. When in, when in place with the Affordable Care Act, if you are within a certain income range, hospitals have to waive your medical bills. And there is, you know, all of the different criteria that hospitals put out there, but the law is that, you know, you have to have these policies in order to keep your nonprofit status and, and to prove that you are providing community benefit to your community as a hospital because they get all these benefits as being tax exempt.

So, there are these programs and I felt like a chump because I'd been paying medical bills for all of these low income families in, in Portland, that would've qualified for free or reduced care if I just knew. So, that is how, like the origin story of Dollar For and then I quickly just moved it straight to patient advocacy, you know, digging into these policies, filling out paperwork, advocating for patients.And in the first couple months I got a million dollars in medical bills to, to disappear for people in the Portland metro area, and I thought, okay, this is like, this works. It's real. Why doesn't anyone know about it? So, that is where I was shouting from the rooftops trying to figure out, you know, why, why doesn't anybody talk about this? So I got on TikTok, I made a 60 second video that told people what Charity Care was, and it blew up. And, and here we are today. So, that's, that's kinda the, that's kinda the story.

Adam Walker: Well, so when you say the TikTok video blew up, I want to, like, what is that, what, what, what are the numbers for that? How many views do you have? I gotta know.

Jared Walker: So it's funny, I mean, we're probably at like 30, 40 million views on, but because of like- So, you know, post it on TikTok and then it gets a million views and I'm like, what the heck? Then TikTok takes it down for like violating, you know, whatever terms of service, and then it gets put back up, and then it gets, when I, you know, repost, it gets another, you know, one and a half million views and then somebody posts it to Twitter. It gets 10, over 10 million views on Twitter.And then it, you know, front page of Reddit, Instagram. I mean, it was just like, there was a few weeks where like, it was insane. I mean, every, you know, we were at, NPR, Upworthy, Buzzfeed, like every single one of those like viral threads kind of thing, they were posting this video and it just showed, it like, it proved no one knows.

Adam Walker: Yeah.

Jared Walker: It was the first time anybody had heard about it. I mean, it was like the whole internet was just like, wait a minute, what just happened, and it was like right in the midst of Covid. So it's like, everyone kind of feels like they're in the midst of a medical crisis during that time, and it was just like kind of, a perfect storm.

Adam Walker: All right. And so, so then, I mean, while we're talking about it, like give us the summary of that video. Like what blew up? What, what, like, tell us! What, what do we not know?

Jared Walker: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, it's funny, I never, I didn't have a TikTok account. My little sister kept telling me like, oh, you gotta get on TikTok and tell people about Dollar For.

Adam Walker: Yeah. Yeah.

Jared Walker: And I'm just thinking, gosh, I don't wanna have to keep up with, with these young kids on social media, like, that's too hard. And some, I'm, I download the app, I'm scrolling through and I see, this video that was, and I'm sure you've seen it, everybody, it's, what's a piece of information that you've learned that feels illegal to know?

Adam Walker: Yep.

Jared Walker: And I, I see that video and I'm like, I got the answer, like, I got this, you know, I can make this video. So I, I make my first TikTok video and I, I post it. So really it was just, most hospitals in America are nonprofits, over 65%. In order for them to keep their nonprofit status, they have to have charity care laws. And what that means is that if you are within a certain income range, the hospitals will waive your, your medical bills. So I, I, in the video, I pull up a hospital. I find their financial assistance policy, show people how to, how to search for it. And cuz you know, it's not on the homepage of these hospitals that's for sure.

So, it's you know, it's hidden. So, you know, show 'em how to find it and then you know, weed through the policy, tell 'em what to look for, and then what is the income threshold and if you're within this income range, you can fill out this application and and send it in. And then, you know, I'm thinking maybe 50 people see this, this video.So of course I say, Hey, if you need help, shoot me a dm. I can help ya. Which ultimately backfires.

Adam Walker: Oh, no!

Jared Walker: So like tens of thousands of messages later, you know, from every platform, you know, people asking for help. And it, you know, overnight I was a, you know, a dude in the Pacific Northwest that was trying to help people with medical bills, to like national organization on accident and trying to figure out how to, how to screen all these people.

Adam Walker: Wow.

Jared Walker: Which was a, an experience, so.

Adam Walker: So you, so you mostly answered my next question, which was like, how does Charity Care factor into healthcare financial systems, but, so I'm curious, you did mention like, like if people meet a certain threshold. Like can, can you give us an idea of like, what that threshold tends to, like, what's the average household income or like, just, just kind of some concept of what that looks.

Jared Walker: Yeah, so average in the US would be about 250% of the federal poverty guidelines. So what, you know, what the heck does that mean, is that federal poverty, if you, if you look up 250%, the most common in, in like the average policy for a hospital in the United States would be 250% of the federal poverty guidelines. So most hospitals would say something like, if you are at or below 250% of the federal poverty guidelines, we will waive 100% of your medical bills. And if you are from 250 to maybe 300%, we have a sliding scale discount. So as you know, in terms of numbers, 250% for a single household is about $34,000 gross annual income. If you're a family of four, that's like $70,000 and it depends on where you're at, because I'm in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon and Washington, every hospital here will waive 100% of your medical bills if you're at or below 300% of the federal poverty guidelines. So if you're a family of four, you can make, you know, $76,000 gross annual income.

And you know, it, it goes off cost of living. And it's annoying, cuz none of this is standardized. There's no Charity Care police, nobody's looking in out for it. So every hospital has their own policy, their own application, their own way of doing things. And I've seen hospitals, you know, in New York or San Francisco, I've seen 'em go all the way up to 800% of the federal poverty guidelines. And then you know, a few hospitals in, Georgia or, or where, you know, where it's like 150% or whatever. So it really depends on the hospital and, and all that.

Adam Walker: Okay. So, so if there's a listener to the show, they're dealing with medical debt, how would you advise them to get started tackling their bills?I mean, how would, how would they find out if they qualify? Is there, certain dollar amounts, we kind of talked about for a minute of it ago, just now. How would they go about accessing the funding, like all that kind of stuff.

Jared Walker: Yeah. So number one, I would say, Hey, there's no shame in this, everybody, you know, there's so many people that, that avoid medical care because they can't afford it.There's so many people that feel shame about, you know, debt. This is not debt that people choose to take on. This is something where you get a medical crisis and, you don't need to feel shame about applying for these services and, this is why they exist. And then I would tell them you can always go to dollarfor.org/help.We have an eligibility screener that, that can tell you immediately what you're eligible for at your hospital. And if you wanna do it yourself, you Google, hospital name plus financial assistance. So, you know, Legacy Health, financial assistance. And then usually top link is gonna be what that program is and you wanna find, you know, what percentage of the, of the federal poverty guideline compared to your income, you know, and stuff.

So that, this is what, like, what we do as an organization. So after we had our little viral experience, the, the question was, how on earth do we screen people to see, you know, cuz I got all these people saying, Hey, can you help me?Can you help me? And you know, the question is, well, do you qualify? How do we find out? So we got a group of volunteers, captured the financial assistance policy data for every hospital in the country. So thousands and thousands of hospitals read through the policies, put it into a web tool, where a patient can put in their household size, income, what hospital, and it will tell them immediately what they're eligible for according to their hospital's policy.Then if they're eligible, they'll get connected to a patient advocate, and we will fill out all the paperwork, submit it to the hospital and, and advocate on their behalf until the bills are waived.

Adam Walker: Man, that is, amazing! That's fantastic! Wow! So, alright, so what happens if they apply and they get rejected?Like, is there, is there a recourse after that?

Jared Walker: Yeah. You can appeal it. So you can always appeal these decisions. I will say, hospitals, can make mistakes on this. And you know, sometimes we tell people, there's a hardship letter that you can write, you know, always include a hardship letter in your application.There's so many, I mean, thousands of scenarios that you never thought you'd be like, you know, writing down on, on this hardship letter for this patient. You know, Hey, this is what happened, they, you know, they were a household of four and then they had someone pass away in the family. So now they're household of three.

And this is, you know, this is why the, in like trying to explain all the different, you know, there's so much nuance to these things. So, if you get denied, you can appeal the decision, and you write a hardship letter on that, Hey, this is why, you know, it might look like I, you know, make too much money, but I just lost my job.Or I am unable to work because I'm going through chemo, or, you know, whatever. So-

Adam Walker: Okay. Okay.

Jared Walker: That's what, what we do. And we do that, we have template letters that we send out on behalf of patients all the time. So, yeah, definitely appeal. I always tell 'em, you know, don't, don't take no for an answer.Just keep going.

Adam Walker: And just keep appealing. Yeah, I mean, you have the opportunity, why not do it? So, so on this show, we talk to MMI clients, typically who have overcome like a large amount of debt, consumer and medical debt through MMI's debt management programs, I mean, how can the work that you do at Dollar For help people in tandem with the credit counseling services that MMI provides?

Jared Walker: Yeah. I think, you know, medical debt is a really common debt that people have, and a lot of times people don't know what the best options are. And sometimes, yeah, it's a, you know, low payment plan and try to figure out, you know, how, you know, creative ways to, to overcome that. And other times it is, this hospital never told you about charity care and we can just wipe this bill out.So we, we partnered with, with MMI. We are an organization that loves to get referrals from other organizations that are, you know, helping a similar population. And if, if that is you, if you are, you know, struggling with hospital bills, you can go to dollarfor.org/mmi. We partnered to, to help people in this situation.It goes right to our eligibility screener, you'll be, you know, connected to a patient advocate and we would be happy to help anyone through, through these, you know, very, very complicated systems.

Adam Walker: I love that. All right, so last question and then maybe, maybe one follow up with some final thoughts. So even though, you know, consumer debt, medical debt, super common, we really don't talk about it.Like it, it's a, there's very much of a stigma around it, right? And so how do you think debt counseling, nonprofits, and organizations like MMI helped to break that debt stigma?

Jared Walker: Yeah, I mean, I just, you know, I kind of touched on that a little earlier of like the, you know, there's no, there's no shame in this.Like there- No one chooses to get cancer and have to go to the ER for, you know, what. It's like, these are debts that people take on and it's not, you know, like this idea of, oh, you know, they're irresponsible, or how it's like, I, I feel like those can, you know, be overcome pretty easily. Like, this is not everyone. Everyone understand. Because everyone has contributed to a GoFundMe for a family friend. You know what I mean? Like most GoFundMe accounts are, are medical bill related. People get it. And I think that, you know, it has nothing to do with, with you being irresponsible or, or you not doing what you're supposed to do. It has everything to do with, we, we have a broken healthcare system.

And you know, it, it is what it is. And, and you have to, you have to find the advocates or you have to advocate. Advocate for yourself. And, and it's tough. And, and that's like something that we try, you know, we want to empower patients because yes, we will do this all for you. We'll fill out the paperwork, we'll do whatever.But sometimes people say, Hey, I wanna, I wanna take this on. And we have, you know, educational material, videos, resources, where we just lead them through that process. And it's really great when you have people that say, Hey, I, you know, I watched your videos, I followed the steps, and I was able to, you know, get whatever, $50,000 of medical bills waived.You know, it, it's- it's a, Yeah, it's, it's a feel good story for sure.

Adam Walker: Man it's so inspiring the work that you're doing. I cannot imagine the amount of work that just goes into the people that you'resupporting. And, and I, I just, I have to say like, on behalf of them and like, I just so appreciate the work that you're doing.It's just profound and amazing. Jared,

Jared Walker: Thanks so much.

Adam Walker: This is a great- Man we'll love to have you back on the show sometime, but thanks for joining us today.

Jared Walker: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Adam Walker: Thanks for listening to this episode of Long Story Short, brought to you by Money Management International.

To learn more about how MMI helps people from all walks of life get unstuck and out of the vicious cycle of debt through personalized solutions that inspire hope, visit moneymanagement.org. This episode was produced by Edgewise.Media. Script writing and production by Clara Jennings, editing by Brandon Ellis and show hosting by me, Adam Walker.

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