Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/07/22

It is a misconception that our veterans receive free or even affordable medical care through the Veterans Administration. So, says Jerry Ashton, the US Navy veteran and social entrepreneur I first interviewed in 2019 about RIP Medical Debt, his initial campaign to eliminate medical debt for all Americans. We have been in touch since regarding Let’s Rethink This, his website focusing on out-of-the-box solutions for the many problems facing our society. I was honored to be  allowed to contribute my thoughts regarding rethinking public assistance through Universal Basic Income.

This time, Jerry is talking about his push to end medical debt specifically to those whose crushing medical debt was incurred on the battlefield fighting for our country.

JWK: You say it’s a misconception that veterans receive free or even affordable medical care from the Veterans Administration. I think most people think they do.

Jerry Ashton: That certainly is a misconception. VA Healthcare is a discretionary program which means its at their discretion as to whether or not someone qualifies…So, there’s a provision of healthcare that’s dependent on, for example, available appropriations. They might not even have the money or the resources to meet a need – but the real point is not every veteran is automatically entitled to medical care from the VA. They have to meet basic eligibility requirements.

JWK: What are they? Do you have to be seriously injured? What makes you eligible?

JA: The simplest is if you have a condition that was caused or made worse by your military service. For example, a lot of attention was paid to burn pits thanks to the State of the Union address that was given. For years the military took all of their waste – whether it be medical or equipment, it made no difference – they’d build this huge pit and they would haul these materials into the pits and then they would use jet fuel to light them on fire. Of course, they required military servicemen and women to tend to those flames. All the smoke and all the stuff that came out of that, they were subjected to that. That’s an example – and that’s just recently being paid attention to. But, if you have an injury or a disability, you can receive all your medical care for free – and not just the care that’s related to your injuries. And, Medicare, there’s something to be said about that. Medicare doesn’t pay for any care that a veteran receives at a VA facility. 

JWK: So, in the past, as I understand, a veteran would have to show a connection to his or her physical condition and being around a burn pit.

JA: Let’s provide some context for this. I recently launched an End Veteran Medical Debt campaign… For people that don’t know me or are not aware of my work, as a veteran I didn’t even realize that there were limits as to what was allowed me as a veteran or other veterans. I very seldom used the service because I was fortunate enough to have a job and regular insurance. Then…I started talking to my buddies who were using the VA and…I co-founded a charity called RIP Medical Debt. In fact, you actually reported on that (in 2019). It was a wonderful title you had for that, by the way: Medical debt slayers bring their crusade to churches and the media – which is exactly what we did. So, (with) RIP Medical Debt, the intention was and is take donations and go the debt market where debt is bought and sold like a commodity. We went to that market. We took our donations and we bought that medical debt for pennies on the dollar or less and, once it was in our possession, we forgave it – which I might point out is a pretty nice thing to do. It’s called being a Christian.

JWK: Other than focusing on veterans, is your new campaign in any way different than your initial RIP Medical Debt initiative?

JA: Yes. With RIP we were limited by what was available to us to buy. Most people don’t know that hospitals will actually sell the medical debt that hasn’t been paid (to them). Only about a third of all hospitals will sell their debt on the open market. So, that left two thirds of them that did not. So, our job was to go to the debt market and buy debt from these debt (sellers)…However, that’s for the general public. What came to our surprise when we started buying portfolios millions of dollars at a time is that we actually found evidence of veterans that were in collections which made me aghast.

So, what we did is my partner Craig Antico and I went down to D.C. and met with a subcommittee on veterans healthcare. That was about four years ago. We were told that there was over six-billion dollars worth of medical debt on the backs of veterans. Six billion! Now, that debt is not available on the debt market. It sits in the filing cabinets and the data banks of the VA hospital system. So, when I did what I needed to do at RIP, I retired from the board and started Let’s Rethink This as a public benefit corporation (which) meant that we were able to do charitable things but not be restricted by what charities are allowed to say or do or to become political or somehow or another activist. We realized what we needed to do was to catch the attention of the VA – and the best way to do that is with a campaign.

JWK: So, the End Veteran Medical Debt campaign is associated with the Let’s Rethink This website?

JA: LetsRethinkThis.com was my latest way of being able to make a difference in this world. With RIP Medical Debt the original intention was to abolish one-billion dollars worth of people’s medical debt. As of last month, we “failed” miserably at that because we’re up to 5.6 billion dollars for over three-million families.

JWK: Getting back to the VA, I know only what I read about this but I’ve read that veterans were actually pleased with the reforms former President Trump brought to the agency. Does he actually deserve some credit there?

JA: President Trump made a lot of assertions. Any (positive innovation) that hits the wall that sticks is always a good thing. I believe in this one case whatever recommendations he made…had some benefits but (consider) the machine you’re looking at. The VHA (Veterans Hospital Administration) is the largest integrated healthcare system in the United States. There are over 12,000 facilities – 171 medical centers, over a thousand outpatient sites. That’s for nine-million that are enrolled in the VA. That’s huge. Public pressure, Administration pressure and changes in policy make all the difference in the world – as long as it’s funded properly.

One of the biggest challenges for the VA is that they’re asked to do too much with too little. Every government seems to be much happier raising the budget for the military but not for taking care of the veterans who come home after that experience. Of course, I’m a Navy veteran myself – a former journalist in the Navy – and that offends me. It offends me deeply. Out military people and veterans are used as backdrops or they’re used as photo opportunities for politicians to raise their image but, when they walk away, they walk away leaving the VA (and) the veterans pretty much stuck.

JWK: You know what amazes me – and I’m not putting down these organizations which as far as I know are doing great work – is all these ads we see asking for public donations to groups like the Wounded Warrior Project and Tunnel to Towers and various things like that provide homes and health services to severely injured veterans. I mean why should they have to beg for funds to provide these things to vets that gave so much for our country? Considering all the ways we spend taxpayer money, I think most people would support the government doing almost anything to give these people whatever support they need.

JA: One would think that…There are thousands of veteran-related charities. They abound. The real question that we both need to ask is why do they need to exist to begin with? If we had taken care of those veterans to begin with – if we had had the type of care for them that they (gave) for us – the charities would be disappearing. For example, with RIP Medical Debt, if medical debt itself disappeared 50% of all collection activity in the United States would disappear along with it. Not only that, all the costs that are brought about (by that debt). Sixty percent of all personal bankruptcies are medical-debt related. Why do we allow that? We allow that because you have to follow the money. You take a look at Big Pharma. You take a look at Big Hospitals. You take a look at Wall Street. And you follow the money. Whenever Wall Street meets (medicine) you can be sure the costs are gonna go up and the benefits to users are gonna go down.

JWK: So, if you could take over the Veterans Administration – and had the full support of whatever Administration was in charge – what would you do? What changes would you make?

JA: That’s like the famous “If you had a magic wand…?”, right? Well, if I had the magic wand, Number One, the government – that’s you and me – we would act in care and support of our own citizenry. It’s like taking care of yourself. If we had either a single payer or some form of healthcare nationally so that anybody when they have a need will be taken care of we wouldn’t have needs for all these collateral services and organizations that show up to make money off of a broken system. So, I’d get rid of the system. Shall we say, I’d swap it out for something intelligent? That’s what I would do.

Going back to the campaign that we’re doing, I want you to know that we’re not here to raise money. We’re here to raise awareness. Very few people are aware of the fact that veterans carry that type of a burden. Once they become aware of it, the very next thing is…does it make a difference? Do you respond to that? Does it mean anything to you that the people who signed a blank check up to and including the loss of their own lives through service are going to be dis-served when they come home? Is that a way to say “Thank you for your service?”

JWK: I find it outrageous. Like I say, I’ll give these groups that benefit of the doubt that they’re actually helping veterans but they shouldn’t have to exist. Like you say, these people have literally given their arms and legs for our country. They shouldn’t have to go begging for anything.

JA: I can’t even discuss this subject without getting upset. Here I am, a veteran. I co-founded RIP Medical Debt that has taken, as I said, 5.6 billion dollars of pain off people’s backs. Now, I take a look at veterans and I realize that my own organization can’t really help veterans because that debt is locked up within the VA’s vaults. So, this campaign is designed to be able to motivate them, educate them and enable them to open up their coffers just like hospitals now are allowed to do (and) donate that unpaid and unpayable debt – whether it be to RIP Medical Debt or any of a number of organizations that would be happy to see that debt forgiven. Get it done! Get it off of people’s backs! There’s no reason it should sit there.

JWK: How can people become involved and help?

JA: A couple of ways. Number One, if they go to our website, we have a petition to sign at EndVeteranMedicalDebt.com. There’s a petition and there’s contact (information) for getting in touch with your congressman. You can like our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter…This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. If they go to our website and they click on Newsletter, what we do is we give them updates on our progress and how they can help and, more than that, they’ll get a free PDF of Chapter Five from a book that I helped write called End Medical Debt: The COVID Recovery Edition. That chapter is called No Thank You for Your Service. We’re gonna give them an idea…in that one chapter devoted to veterans (about) the impact, the dangers and problems that are faced by service people just because they have enough patriotism to enlist or enroll or become an officer in our armed services.
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Pure Jeen-Yuhs. Netflix gathers filmmakers and faith leaders to discuss faith, media & culture. The streamer sponsored the event that was moderated by the noted producer of faith-themed films DeVon Franklin. Panelists included gospel singer Kirk Franklin, Transformation Church Pastor Michael Todd and the creative team behind Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy (Coodie, Chike and J. Ivy). The group talked about the intersection faith and media. More on the event after the trailer below.

Talking about the forum, DeVon Franklin said “People need hope and they need help. This event was proof that content can be used to provide both.” Kirk Franklin asserted that “Faith should always exist outside of the church walls. If what you believe is limited, then it’s not real.”  Michael Todd shared “This event was a culture shifter for me because everybody has faith in something. Whenever you put faith in God, mixed with entertainment and culture, it is a beautiful intersection of humanity and divinity.”

Chike said Jeen-Yuhs “is about walking in faith. It’s about belief in the higher power, to remove all fear, to really discover your genius.”

“When you move in faith, you never know what is going to happen,” Coodie offered, adding “We couldn’t imagine us being on stage with DeVon Franklin, Kirk Franklin and Pastor Mike talking about Christ Jesus all because of this movie.”

J. Ivy summed things up by saying “It was important for us to do this event to connect with the people, connect with the community. To let them know that this film is God-driven. It’s all about this walk we’ve been on together as a family, as a village. And to be able to connect with the larger community. It was incredible.”

Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy is currently streaming on Netflix.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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