John Oliver buys, forgives $15 million in medical debt
One issue I sometimes had with the Jon Stewart era of “The Daily Show” was that it made fun of all the horrible, anti-progressive shit going on in the world without giving any actionable advice on what to do about it, making it appealing for self-identified liberals who wanted to believe society’s problems were entirely external to themselves. On Sunday’s episode of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (helmed, as you know, by a “Daily Show” protege), host John Oliver corrected that tradition by buying and forgiving nearly $15 million in medical debt.
In the type of detailed 20-minute segment the show is becoming known for, Oliver examined the debt-buying industry, a poorly regulated field wherein companies buy people’s debt for pennies on the dollar and harass them into paying it, often by illegal and abusive means. He also discussed “zombie debt,” i.e. money which debt collectors try to extract that people are no longer actually obligated to pay. The show even sent a correspondent to an industry conference with a hidden camera to watch collectors gloat about how consumers don’t know their rights. (Also illuminating: An Arkansas lawmaker joking with the House Insurance and Commerce Committee about how he has to protect the bankers or his banker wife won’t let him come home at night.)
Given what they learned about the debt collecting industry — namely, that “any idiot can get into it” — Oliver and company decided to turn it to the people’s advantage and buy $15 million in medical debt for just $60,000. With the push of a big red button, Oliver symbolically (but also factually) gave it away, beating out Oprah for the biggest giveaway in TV history.
It also bears mentioning that Oliver was not the first person to have this idea; Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has been buying and forgiving debt via its Rolling Jubilee project for a few years. To donate or learn more about its organizing principles, go here.