Comedian John Oliver, who can explain wonkish policy details while satirically skewering the issue, has tackled several complicated topics on his HBO show. Recently on “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” he took on the issue of medical debt, which he wrapped in the spectacle of a charitable move and a saucy challenge to former talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Oliver created a company he named Central Asset Recovery Professionals, whose acronym intentionally refers to the bottom-feeding fish. He then paid less than $60,000 for nearly $15 million of medical debt from Texas that was too old to be collectible under state law.
But instead of using the personal information to try to collect from the estimated 9,000 who owed, he pressed a big red button to forgive and forget the debt. He called the whole affair “disturbingly easy.”
Oliver highlighted practices that debt buyers and collection agencies have been accused of, including threats, harassment and misinformation.
“Once a company has bought your debt, whether the information is accurate or not, they are going to try to collect on it, and they can either do that themselves or assign it to a collection agency,” he said.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found that 20% of all consumer credit report scores were lowered by unpaid medical debt reported by collection agencies.
Some financial experts have raised a few concerns with Oliver's act. The forgiveness could have a negative effect on the debtors' credit scores, and it's not clear if it will truly “have no tax consequences” for individuals as he stated on the show. Oliver said he used not-for-profit RIP Medical Debt for the process of forgiving the debts.
Oliver claimed the debt forgiveness represented the largest giveaway in TV history, although he noted that “the larger issue is we need much clearer rules and larger oversights.” He said the giveaway was worth about twice as much as when all the audience members of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” received a free car.
In a Twitter posting this week, Oliver said, “Your move, Oprah … ”