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L.A. Church Delivers Big Christmas Gift To Thousands Of Families In Southern Calif.


A church in the Los Angeles area is delivering a big Christmas gift to thousands of families in Southern California. Christian Assembly Church is paying off medical debts - $5.3 million worth of outstanding bills. And the church is paying just one penny on the dollar, so $53,000 total donated by parishioners. They worked with a nonprofit organization called RIP Medical Debt which buys medical bills from collection agencies for a fraction of what's owed. Craig Antico is one of the founders of RIP Medical Debt, and he joins us from Rye, N.Y. Welcome.

CRAIG ANTICO: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with this church in Southern California. Tell us how you worked with them to pay off millions of dollars in medical bills.

ANTICO: Pastor Tom Hughes reached out to us and asked us if we could help them find debt in LA and in the surrounding areas. We had about - little over $5 million that we could buy for them. And they were able to help over 5,000 families when they need it most.

SHAPIRO: How exactly does this work, paying off debt for one penny on the dollar?

ANTICO: Yes. What it does is you actually can go to the debt market and buy debt for less than 1% on the dollar and either collect it or abolish it.

SHAPIRO: Because on the marketplace, debt collectors will actually sometimes pay 1 cent on the dollar to buy debt knowing that they're not going to recover 100% of it but maybe they'll recover five or 10% of it and that'll be worthwhile for them.

ANTICO: That's exactly how it works. You'll buy it for about a third of what you think you'll collect over the next five, six years.

SHAPIRO: I understand you used to be a debt collector yourself, and that's one reason you know how the system works in so much detail. How did you come to be on the other side of this equation?

ANTICO: I know. Jerry Ashton and I...

SHAPIRO: Your co-founder.

ANTICO: ...Our co-founder - have been in the industry for over 30 years. We've been debt buyers and collectors our whole life. We heard of a nonprofit. They were the ones that came up with this idea. And they were doing it more as a tactic to raise attention. And they abolished about $25 million. And after about two years of doing it, they said, you know, we're going to go do something else. And Jerry and I looked at each other and said, we're not going to let that happen. Just stop this. They've helped like 20,000 people. We're going to have to do this ourselves. You know, we focused on medical. You don't want to be abolishing debt, like, for a big screen TV or a Hawaii vacation. Medical debt is so different. You can have insurance and be financially ruined by one illness or accident. It's just - it's preposterous.

SHAPIRO: This Southern California church has gotten a lot of attention for buying off this much medical debt. And I understand you're hearing from a lot of other organizations that want to do the same. Can you tell me about that?

ANTICO: Yes. This year alone, over $350 million has been paid off by faith-based organizations through us. What's amazing about this movement to abolish debt it's based in scripture. And it's based in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And it goes back and says we need to forgive our debtors and release our slaves. And this is kind of what these people are. They're slaves to this debt. And they need to have their debt forgiven. It's astounding how much debt people have. And we have to help them. It might be a resolutionary approach to this, but until we find the root cause and change the system, we have to help the people that are being just destroyed by this medical debt.

SHAPIRO: That's Craig Antico, co-founder of RIP Medical Debt. Thank you for speaking with us today.

ANTICO: Thank you, Ari. Have a wonderful day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.