An Arkansas oncologist decided to give nearly 200 patients a Christmas gift that he hoped would make their lives “a little bit easier”: erasing their more than half a million dollars in medical debt.
Dr. Omar Atiq, who founded the Arkansas Cancer Clinic in 1991, sent out a notice to his patients just days before Dec. 25 saying that “the clinic has decided to forego all balances owed to the clinic by its patients,” according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
The outlet reported that Atiq had closed the clinic in late February after nearly 30 years of providing cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Atiq told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in an interview published Friday that he had worked with a billing company for months to collect any remaining payments from patients, but eventually decided to stop contacting them.
As of December, the clinic still had a total of nearly $650,000 in outstanding patient bills, according to Atiq, who is also a professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.
“Over time I realized that there are people who just are unable to pay,” Atiq told “GMA.” “So my wife and I, as a family, we thought about it and looked at forgiving all the debt.”
“We saw that we could do it and then just went ahead and did it,” he added.
In the notice to his patients, Atiq wrote that, “Although various health insurances pay most of the bills for majority of patients, even the deductibles and co-pays can be burdensome.”
“Unfortunately, that is the way our health care system currently works,” Atiq continued, before telling patients that all remaining debts would be forgiven.
“Happy Holidays,” the doctor added.
Atiq told “Good Morning America” that he saw erasing of debts as “something we could at least do to help the community,” especially amid the economic crisis spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Since I started practicing, I’ve always been rather uncomfortable with sick patients not only having to worry about their own health and quality of life and their longevity and their families and their jobs but also money,” he said. “That’s always tugged at me.”
“I saw patients over the years who just didn’t have anything or who went bankrupt trying to pay for their treatment,” he continued. “In many ways it seems like a totally unfair situation.”
Bea Cheesman, president of RMC of America, the billing company that worked with Atiq, told “GMA” that Atiq’s decision to forgive all remaining debts was a “very kind gesture.”
“Dr. Atiq is a very caring individual and he’s always been extremely easy to work with as a client,” Cheesman said. “I think personally that it’s just a wonderful thing that he and his family did in forgiving this debt because the people with oncology bills do have more challenges than the bulk of the population.”