He wiped out $10B in medical debt. Now he’s battling veteran debt

June 14, 2024

After launching a nonprofit that’s eliminated more than $10 billion of medical debt in the U.S., a Navy veteran is seeking to relieve the burden of debt for his fellow former service members. 

Jerry Ashton leveraged his experience in the debt collection industry to launch Undue Medical Debt, formerly known as RIP Medical Debt, in 2014. By the time he stopped in 2020, the nonprofit had already bought out billions in medical debt across the county. 

Now he hopes to do the same through his new organization End Veteran Debt, this time targeting fellow veterans, who he says are uniquely burdened by debt.

“The intention of End Veteran Debt is exactly that. It’s a twofold mission. One obviously is to end veteran debt and the other one is to reduce veteran suicide, which we find inseparable,” Ashton said. 

Although the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) covers medical treatment for veterans related to their military service, they may have to pay for other, unrelated services or if the VA contracts with another business. Some may also go to non-VA facilities incorrectly assuming the VA could pick up the tab. 

Veterans collectively owe more than $382 million in medical debt as of 2022, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), impacting 875,000 veterans. 

The CFPB also reported that it had 5,000 complaints from veterans on medical debt from 2018 to 2021, representing 10 percent of all calls about medical debt in that time period. 

The VA has sought to ease the burden of medical debt by implementing new rules that only authorizes it to report the debt to credit agencies if it has exhausted collection efforts, if the veteran is not significantly disabled or income-restricted, and if the debt is more than $25. 

Medical debt, however, is generally a smaller issue for veterans, who are primarily struggling to tackle credit card and other types of financial debt. 

According to Ashton, who served in the Navy during the 1950s, young service members are prime targets for “predatory debt.” 

“All you have to do is drive around a military base. You’re going to see the new cars and the newest car loans, you’re going to see the payday loans, you’re going to see all kinds of scammy businesses. Maybe they don’t call it that, but the way that they treated the veteran is,” Ashton said. 

Much of this has to with their youth, noted Ashton, as many end up using their first paychecks on large purchases like cars because “they didn’t know what they were doing.” He also cited payday loans as a frequent source of debt for this cohort. 

“The amount of money or the wages that are paid to the military right now aren’t really sufficient to the financial reality that we live in. So, you’re always going to have people closer to poverty,” Ashton said. 

The Wounded Warriors Project (WWP) has said more than 9 in 10 of its veterans have debt other than a mortgage payment and more than half live paycheck-to-paycheck.  

And the WWP, which helps to provide physical and mental health care for veterans, also noted more than 43 percent of its veterans can’t afford an emergency expense of $1,000 or more. 

Undue Medical Debt relieves patients of debt by negotiating with hospitals to buy out outstanding charges for pennies on the dollar. With his aim of addressing all different forms of debt for veterans, Ashton is aware his newest organization is taking on a more complex problem. 

“It’s definitely granular,” Ashton conceded but he noted Undue Medical Debt’s work “wasn’t that easy at first” either. His prior organization took six years to meet its goal of abolishing $1 billion, but by the time it became 10 years old, this amount had grown more than tenfold. 

End Veteran Debt is aiming to abolish $80 million in outstanding dues, $1 million for every year since D-Day through a campaign that Ashton has named “Debt-Day.” 

The mechanism of debt erasure is similar to Undue Medical Debt’s method. Money coming into the organization will go toward locating debt and ensuring it’s erased, though End Veteran Debt is outsourcing this work to ForgiveCo, a public benefit corporation that partners with nonprofits and companies to buy out debt for pennies on the dollar and forgive it. 

ForgiveCo was founded by Craig Antico, a fellow co-founder of Undue Medical Debt. 

“I’m starting from scratch with Craig,” Ashton said. “When I left, I retired from the [board of Undue Medical Debt], it was to focus strictly on veterans. So, Craig had a general view of how to take care of debt for the public. Mine was and is a focus on veterans.” 

The yearlong “Debt-Day” fundraising campaign signifies the first step in End Veteran Debt’s endeavor. 

Reflecting on the first days of Undue Medical Debt, Ashton said, “We just didn’t magically acquire the debt any more that we can magically acquire a veteran’s. So, it does require fundraising, but we decided to build it around the theme of D-Day. Liberation, the Allies hit the beach to liberate Europe. Our idea is to hit the beach, the financial beach, and liberate veterans.”