JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Thousands of local veterans and their families are buckling under the weight of crushing medical debt.
Sean Kelly grew up in Jacksonville and served eight years in the Marine Corps.
"I went in to the Marine Corps while the Iraq war was going on," Kelly said.
Kelly said he racked up tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt after he came home.
"2015 was a rough year. I was in and out of the hospital. Almost every other week I was going to the hospital," he said.
Kelly said his medical issues stem from his service. He has medical bills the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs didn't cover and still hasn't paid.
"We have probably paid about $30,000 of medical bills, and I think we have anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 dollars left," said Kelly.
The unpaid bills weigh heavy on the retired Marine’s conscience and credit and he's not alone.
Betsy Odell served in the Army. Looking at a binder full of bills, Odell said she has $30,000 in medical debt.
"This is from 2009 to the last time I went to the ER (emergency room) was 2015,” she said.
As she paged through the bills she added, “There’s a lot of stress, a lot of humiliation, a lot of embarrassment and shame.”
When hospitals fail to collect, that debt is often sold to collection agencies for pennies on the dollar.
That debt can be sold multiple times, and what a patient owes can slowly grow with interest, eventually making it impossible for some to pay off.
“Generally, these people are not people that have the resources, had they had the resources, they probably would have dealt with it earlier,” said Jerry Ashton, co-founder of the charity RIP Medical Debt.
The New York-based charity buys up portfolios of medical debt and forgives it. The group helped Action News Jax pay off $1 million in medical debt for local veterans as part of its campaign to forgive $50 million in veterans' debt.
We want to be clear: Action News Jax doesn’t know the names of those who received letters or anything about their medical conditions. We only know the cities where the letters were delivered.
“We were shocked to learn that there's more than $6 billion worth of unpaid emergent care sitting there that the VA refuses to bankroll,” Ashton said. “I’ve gotten so many letters from so many veterans, who have gotten sick on a weekend when the VA isn’t open. They go somewhere else, try to get that bill reimbursed. Or the ambulance would pick them up, and instead of going the 120 miles to the VA hospital, they will take them the 3 miles to the hospital where they need to be immediately: that’s not recognized as a bill.”
For Kelly and Odell, the financial burden has added to the physical cost of their military service.
Action News Jax is committed to covering issues that are important to local military men and women, which is why we decided to spend more than $10,000 to wipe out some medical debt for local active-duty and retired veterans.
More than 1,000 people received letters in yellow envelopes that have an Action News Jax and WOKV sticker on them. If you get one of these letters, we'd like to hear from you. Email email@example.com or call 904-996-0530.
Kelly and Odell knew they may not get one of these letters, but still wanted to share their stories, hoping to inspire viewers to become part of this effort.
LISTEN TO THE NEWS 104.5 WOKV #RIPVETDEBT SPECIAL:
FACEBOOK LIVE: PAIGE KELTON EXPLAINS HOW THE #RIPVETDEBT CAMPAIGN WORKS
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