Why an HBO show just forgave $15 million in medical debt

Giveaway was the biggest in television history, Oliver says

HBO's John Oliver, on his television show "Last Week Tonight," made a grand—and informative—gesture Sunday: He forgave $15 million in medical debt.

Oliver wiped the debt away—in what he called "largest one-time giveaway in television history"—as part of a segment on how easy it is for companies to buy debt (often for pennies on the dollar) and then attempt to collect from consumers who often don't know their rights.

"Any idiot can get into" the debt collection business, obtain debtors' personal information, and get to work collecting, Oliver said. "I can prove that to you, because I'm an idiot, and we started a debt-buying company. And it was disturbingly easy."

Not open about pricing? It'll cost you.

In April, Oliver spent $50 to incorporate a company in Mississippi called Central Asset Recovery Professionals, or CARP, which Oliver explained is named for "the bottom-feeding fish."

Oliver named himself chair of the company's board, set up a rudimentary website—and soon received an offer to purchase $15 million in medical debt for $60,000. CARP took the deal and received the names, current addresses, and Social Security numbers of nearly 9,000 people.

At that point CARP—and Oliver—had the right to start collecting, but he had other ideas: Oliver decided to donate the debt to a not-for-profit called RIP Medical Debt. By Oliver's accounting, the $15 million giveaway eclipsed Oprah Winfrey's famous 2004 car giveaway, which had a value of nearly $8 million.

Oliver marked the occasion with confetti and falling dollar bills on the show, but he was quick to make a larger point: "We need much clearer rules and tougher oversight to protect consumers from potentially predatory companies like the one that we set up," he said (Roger, New York Times, 6/6; Versel, MedCity News, 6/6; Ellison, Becker's Hospital Review, 5/6; Goldman, CNN Money, 5/6).

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