Late-night TV host John Oliver recently caused a stir by attacking debt collectors in a clever way. He set up his own collection agency, bought $15 million of medical bad debt, and then forgave it all. This was all done on TV, to the cheers of his audience.
Oliver claimed to have outdone Oprah Winfrey, who once gave a car to each person in her studio audience. Oprah’s car give-away cost $8 million, just over half of Oliver’s. So, Oliver wins the charitable ego competition, right?
Nope. Oliver did not forgive $15 million of medical debt. That was the face amount of the accounts receivable. He bought them for about half a cent on the dollar, or about $60,000 total. The lesson of Oliver’s stunt is that medical accounts receivable are very hard to collect. That is why they trade so cheaply in the secondary debt market.