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More than a thousand city residents have their medical debt erased thanks to Spark of Hudson project

$1.2 million in medical debt has been discharged thanks to Spark of Hudson.
Dave Lucas
$1.2 million in medical debt has been discharged thanks to Spark of Hudson.

Residents with medical debt in Hudson have had the financial burden lifted, their debts satisfied by a local non-profit group.

$1.2 million in medical debt has been discharged thanks to Spark of Hudson, which calls itself a hub for learning and community development. The charitable organization has pioneered several initiatives that have benefited the Columbia County city of 6,000, including Hudson's universal basic income pilot program. Formal notices were sent to eligible residents. Spark co-founder Susan Danziger says the funding was provided by the Delaware-based Eutopia Foundation.

"It took about just over a year and working hand in hand with Columbia Memorial Health, the local hospital in Hudson, in the city of Hudson," said Danziger. "Together, we were able to kind of understand what, what kind of debt, medical debt was outstanding, and what we could contribute in order to satisfy the debt."

Danziger says satisfying the medical debt incurred by 1,156 residents brightens each individual's financial profile.

"If somebody can get out of debt, if the debt is cleared, the idea is their credit scores can improve, they're in a position to be able to lease a car or, you know, get a mortgage on a house, everything that you can do with better credit," Danziger said. "So yes, the idea is that medical debt is but one piece of the puzzle and hoping that by clearing it, will, you know, we'll get people in a much better position to get there to get their credit in good shape."

Danziger says Spark does not know the identities of the residents they've helped. The agreement eliminates medical debts being paid off via hospital payment plans as well as those that have been sent to collection agencies.

"We don't keep any records ourselves," said Danziger. "But, you know, certainly, we've heard that people who, who, you know, from what I understand, these are people who don't ordinarily get relief, they're not necessarily low income people. They're middle income people who happen to, you know, had gone to the hospital and in one fell swoop have incurred thousands and thousands of dollars of medical debt and have not been able to get out from under it. So, you know, enormous collective sigh of relief, I imagine."

Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood Executive Director Joan Hunt says feedback from the program has been positive.

"For a lot of folks that don't typically receive other types of support, this was like, something that was really able to help them," Hunt said. "I think medical debt is often something that is the last on somebody's list in terms of, you know, they're looking at meeting their basic needs first, versus maybe paying off debt that has, you know, more detrimental consequences."

"As a community hospital, we have always done all we can to help our patients meet the financial obligations associated with their care...We also work one on one with patients who may need a payment plan or other assistance that fits their financial needs," Columbia-Memorial Hospital said in a statement. "Supporting the Spark of Hudson's program to pay the bills of Hudson city residents was a natural extension of our efforts to mitigate the financial impact of care whenever possible.”

Danziger sees the initiative as a creative model of altruism.

"The hospital wins because it gets a chunk of money, as a philanthropic donation," Danziger said. "The individual patients or families win because their medical debt is cleared. The families themselves, you know, the mental health and how they are with their kids and families that that that collective sigh of relief. Their lives are improving that way. Employers are benefiting, you know, the city as a whole, the community is are improving. So it really is, we're hoping to be a model that not just for this community, but for other communities can look to as the potential model for other philanthropists."

The hospital received the money and processed all of the payments.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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