The Fight for our Future: Why Students Need to Campaign Against Medical Debt

By Aidan Norr

In an era of social turmoil, our country has seen a boom in activism, especially among the youngest generation: my peers. In the past two years alone we have seen this trend unfold dramatically. The “March for Our Lives” which saw some 800,000 people descend on the capital, may have been the largest march – fueled by our youth – to have ever taken place in D.C.

It’s easy to see why major movements such as these are sprouting throughout our nation. The issues at hand, such as school shootings, are all well known, incredibly real, and far too normalized. These are the mainstream issues, but there is another issue that lurks in the shadows and haunts our young lives… a silent assassin threatening our nation, and it’s targeting the physically inflicted, the poor, and surprisingly, young adults.

Medical Debt.

Perhaps my contemporaries (age-wise) have not experienced this epidemic, but it is likely that your parents, grandparents, or even family friends have. And, if that isn’t scary enough, this destroyer is hungrily waiting for you and me as we leave our youth and progress into adulthood.

This nemesis, waiting to pounce, affects one in five adults in the United States.

As I have learned in my research as a student working for the non-profit, RIP Medical Debt this past summer, medical debt in general damages people’s lives and buries our citizens financially. One hundred billion dollars in medical debt goes unpaid each year; over 60% of all bankruptcies are caused by medical debt.

Although medical debt is such a prevalent issue, it often goes unnoticed by students and young adults like myself. Surprisingly, as I learned, medical debt most affects not the elderly, but people from the ages of 18 to 25. Students enter adulthood, no longer covered by their parent’s medical insurance, and often have no idea how to get their own insurance.

Without the financial safety net of insurance, they are one illness or accident away from financial ruin.

Not having insurance is without a doubt one of the catalysts, as 11% of all medical debt is attributed to just 27 year-olds, which is generally the year after you get removed from a family insurance plan. It’s not just a “poor choice” on our part, as young adults we simply don’t have the budget to get our own insurance plans.

Trying to begin our own lives as young adults is difficult enough as it is. Starting jobs pay low salaries, student debt hovers in the background, and staying healthy without doctor’s visits are all common dilemmas.

Medical debt is the last thing you need. So let me warn my own: don’t allow ignorance of medical debt to trip you up.

Even though our generation vigorously addresses the issues that burden society, we cannot let this problem go unnoticed. There is a reason why, out of the thousands of student marches and campaigns that have been launched throughout our nation, only one has been to fight medical debt.

It’s ignorance. And ignorance has already proven to be costly.

While I cannot argue that this generation’s spike in social capital and political activism hasn’t had a major impact socially, its effects on the establishment are, for the moment not yet visible. That, unfortunately, is one of the greatest puzzles surrounding activism. How do we know we are making an impact? And, how should we choose to make that impact.

Choose an unlikely cause: abolishing medical debt

There is something that can be done about medical debt, and in my experience its effects are powerful and tangible. Campaigning to relieve medical debt which will help reduce a fellow American of one more burden and, just as importantly, raise awareness. It doesn’t take years of lobbying and protesting. All it takes are simple acts of generosity.

As students entering the adult world, we should have more of a say in our future. If the likelihood of bankruptcy due to a broken healthcare system is an element of this future, I think it is time that we took more responsibility for our destiny. We are the masters of our fate, not the bill collectors.

As I mentioned earlier, there has only been one student campaign to date that focused on medical debt, and it was founded by two Pensacola High School students in 2016.

This was Samir Bourshane and Falen McClellan, now college students like myself.

The Pensacola Debt Sharks, as they called themselves in high school, set a goal to abolish one million dollars of medical debt in the area of Pensacola and Mobile.

Through hard work and getting noticed, they were able to raise over $30,000 and abolished over three million dollars of debt. As a by-product of this, they were honored by the Freedoms Foundation for their groundbreaking work with the prestigious George Washington award.

If two high school students can make such a palpable impact, imagine the kind of statement a nationwide consortium of high school and/or college students working to fight medical debt would make. Collectively, we have the power to make a massive difference.

I invite students, student groups, and like-minded charities to reach out to me for more details on how that can happen. aidan@ripmedicaldebt.org. Even as a busy second-year student at Skidmore, I will be devoting time to this important effort.

We are our nation’s future; let’s be an important part in creating it as a healthy – and debt-free – one for us and our fellow citizens.

For more information on the issues surrounding medical debt, please contact RIP Medical Debt.