Oncologist Cancels Medical Debt for 200 Cancer Patients

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

January 05, 2021

About 200 cancer patients received an unexpected — and very welcome ― present this Christmas. About a week before the holiday, a greeting card arrived in the mail, informing them that all of their remaining medical debt had been canceled.

Altogether, $650,000 worth of charges had been removed from outstanding bills.

Dr Omar Atiq

This was done by Omar Atiq, MD, a medical oncologist who has been running a community oncology clinic in Arkansas for nearly 30 years. He told Medscape Medical News that he realized that many of his patients simply could not afford to pay their bills, and so, along with closing down of his clinic, he canceled the debts.

Atiq had operated the Arkansas Cancer Clinic in Pine Bluff for three decades before he merged with a local hospital in March 2020.

"We were doing the billing ourselves when we had the clinic," said Atiq, "but after the merger, the billing and collections were sent to a local company, and the company started giving us monthly updates."

Atiq said that he had never previously looked at the billing, but since the bills were now coming to him, he started reviewing them.

"I saw that some patients were paying just $5 or $10 dollars on a fairly large bill. I talked to my wife and my children, and we realized that these were patients who just couldn't pay," he said.

Arkansas is a poor state, and Pine Bluff is in the Mississippi Delta, which is one of the poorest regions of the country, he explained. The pandemic had caused job loss and business closures, and people are really feeling the hardship, he added.

"This really is a terrible situation, that in the richest country in the world, people are unable to pay their medical bills or have to file for bankruptcy," Atiq commented. Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to "financial toxicity"; one analysis found that for over a third of patients with cancer who have health insurance, out-of-pocket costs are higher than they anticipated.

Many of these people are of the middle or lower middle class, Atiq commented; they are not the poorest of the poor, who at least have Medicaid to cover medical expenses. "These patients have high out-of-pocket expenses, such as coinsurance and deductibles, and they may also have to take off from work and not be paid for it," he said.

His clinic merged with the local hospital in March 2020. It was subsequently shut down, although many patients were still struggling with their medical bills. Atiq, who is also a professor of medicine in the College of Medicine of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and is an oncologist at the UAMS William P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, Little Rock, Arkansas, saw an opportunity to help his former patients with their outstanding debts.

"We were at the point where we thought we could forgive the debt, and so we did," he said.

The result was that during Christmas week, dozens of surprised patients received the following holiday greeting: "I hope this note finds you well. The Arkansas Cancer Clinic was proud to serve 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. Unfortunately, that is the way our health care system currently works. Arkansas Cancer Clinic is closing its practice after over 29 years of dedicated service to the community. The clinic has decided to forgo all balances owed to the clinic by its patients. Happy Holidays."

To Arkansas via Chicago and New York

Atiq has lived in Pine Bluff since 1991. Originally from Pakistan, Atiq received his medical degree from the Khyber Medical College, University of Peshawar, and did his residency and chief residency in internal medicine at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital and the Foster G. McGaw Hospital of the Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois. His fellowship training was in medical oncology and hematology at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City, and he is board certified in medical oncology, hematology, and internal medicine.

He is currently serving as governor of the Arkansas chapter of the American College of Physicians and is a past president, speaker of the house, and chairman of the board of the Arkansas Medical Society. He sits on the Arkansas State Medical Board and is a commissioner emeritus of the Arkansas Tobacco Settlement Commission, where he served as inaugural vice chair. He has also served on the Pulaski Academy board.

With the help of family, he has established the Atiq Family/JRMC Educational Fund at the Pine Bluff Community Foundation for the benefit of deserving children in the Pine Bluff School District.

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