Our series A More Perfect Union aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment, we go to Nebraska, where one doctor's idea for reducing medical debt is bringing a community together.
With around 43 million Americans under 65 past-due on medical bills and yearly U.S. medical debt totaling $88 billion, one surgeon in Nebraska is offering to eliminate debt for his patients. As long as they agree to pay it forward.
Surgeon Demetrio Aguila saw a recurring problem at his clinic Healing Hands of Nebraska: patients who couldn't afford surgery. So, six months ago, the nerve specialist started a program that offers patients the option to pay for surgery by volunteering for local humanitarian groups.
"We can't ignore the people in our own backyard," he told CBS News correspondent Meg Oliver. "We want to be able to offer hope to patients who have lost hope medically."
About 10% of Aguila's patients qualify for the program. He and his staff calculate the number of volunteer hours required based on the complexity of the surgery.
"I don't care if you're a multi-billionaire or if you're the guy on the street corner with a Styrofoam cup. You get offered the same options. Why? Because it's fair," he said.
The arrangement seemed more than fair to Troy Bowers and his wife Bobbi. Medical debt took them to the brink of bankruptcy, so they agreed to pay for Troy's ankle surgery by volunteering at a local charity where clothing and household goods are donated.
Jeff Jensen also signed on. He has nerve damage in his feet and worried about paying for his procedure.
"There's nothing more depressing than seeing a bill for $18-20-24,000 and going, 'And how much of this will my insurance cover and how much is mine to cover?'" Jensen said.
Jensen's surgery added up to 560 hours of volunteering, but others are allowed to help. For him, more than 100 people stepped up to contribute.
"Of those 105, I probably knew 30 or 40 of them," Jensen said. "Really without this program, this surgery wouldn't have been done."
Aguila hopes his mission will inspire more doctors to find creative ways to limit their patients' medical expenses.
"This whole practice is about restoring hope for patients by giving them the opportunity to wrest back control of their health care," he said.
Right now, the program is small with just eight people, but Aguila said since he started, his stress levels have gone down and his job satisfaction has soared.
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