Two hundred people who were treated for cancer at a Pine Bluff, Arkansas, clinic opened a holiday card to find out they had their medical bills forgiven, about $650,000 in all.
Dr. Omar Atiq, the oncologist who founded the cancer center in 1991 and closed it in early 2020, said he decided to clear the debt after watching his patients struggle to make payments just as the coronavirus crisis began to unfold.
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“You see patients who are just not able to pay. So there are sick people, especially with cancer, and then in the COVID pandemic where people have lost jobs… who are doing all sorts of stuff just to survive,” Atiq, 60, told TODAY.
“For them to have this additional burden, it occurred to us that we were blessed to be able to do this.”
He made the announcement in holiday cards mailed to his patients in December.
“The Arkansas Cancer Clinic was proud to have you as a patient. Although various health insurances pay most of the bills for majority of patients, even the deductibles and co-pays can be burdensome,” the card read.
“The clinic has decided to forego all balances owed to the clinic by its patients. Happy Holidays!”
Atiq closed the cancer center after almost 30 years when he began to spend more time practicing in Little Rock, Arkansas, while another oncologist treated patients at his clinic in Pine Bluff. When that doctor unexpectedly left, the decision was made to close the practice.
“Starting from day one, our policy was never to refuse a patient to be seen whether or not they had insurance,” so a significant amount of money was owed to the clinic, which provided oncology services such as radiation and chemotherapy, Atiq said. “The chemotherapy drugs are horrendously expensive, it's almost unbelievable.”
He tried to collect the debt at first, but noticed people were making payments of just $5 or $10 even though most owed hundreds or thousands of dollars. He realized they just didn’t have the resources to settle their bills. After talking it over with his family in the fall, Atiq decided to forgive the debt, noting it was money he didn’t need.
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Atiq worked with RMC of America, a debt collection agency in White Hall, Arkansas, to clear the bills. Bea Cheesman, president of the company, called it “a very kind gesture” from “a very special physician,” and at $650,000, unprecedented for the firm.
“All our health care clients forgive an individual debt when special situations arise on a fairly routine basis. Forgiving debt of this magnitude was a first for RMC,” Cheesman told TODAY.
“Oncology patients are faced with very difficult challenges, even more so during this pandemic. What a wonderful Christmas gift he gave to his patients.”
The Arkansas Medical Society said it was proud of Atiq, the group’s former president, for “this most generous and amazing gift he gave to his patients this year.”
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Atiq, who is originally from Pakistan and came to the U.S. in 1985, said it was gratifying to hear from patients expressing their thanks. He still practices as an oncologist, focusing on head and neck cancers and lung cancer, at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
He was “glad and grateful” to be able to help his patients, but for him, the bigger concern was them owing money in the first place.
“The issue of medical debt is one of the biggest causes of personal bankruptcies,” Atiq said. “In a country that is so vast, so rich, so prosperous for that to happen, I think that's the issue — not necessarily that somebody was able to help in a small way.”