Dr. Omar Atiq opened the Arkansas Cancer Clinic 29 years ago to provide cancer care to an underserved community in Pine Bluff. He then split his time between the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Medical Center and the clinic, becoming very busy.
When he decided to close the clinic last March, he hired another company to collect outstanding payments from patients. That's when he realized how much people were paying.
"Just browsing through it, I realized that there were patients that were paying $10 for months on end or $5 or $50," Atiq told CBS News. "Patients wanted to pay, but they just didn't have the ability to pay. And at the same time, the country was in the grip, and still is in the grip, of the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated lives in more ways than one."
Atiq spoke to his wife and kids about it, and they decided they didn't need the money — his patients did. "Luckily, we were blessed to have the opportunity to just forego the debt. Just cancel it. So we did," he said. "We didn't, luckily, need the money, somebody else did. So it was done."
Atiq actually did two rounds of debt cancellation in 2020, once in June and another around Christmas. The second time, he sent a holiday card to about 200 patients letting them know they no longer had to pay their outstanding medical bills.
He said he canceled about $650,000 in debt for his cancer patients. He didn't want attention for the good deed, but he did say many patients reached out to thank him.
"When you have the patient-physician relationship, you know each other. The patients know you, and you know the patient. It's rather sacred and very unique," he said.
The doctor said the response has been gratifying. "You know, we're just grateful for the opportunity," he said. "I am certain that many others in our shoes have done the same, physicians all around the country, all around the world."
Atiq said that to him this is not just a story about debt forgiveness, "but the fact that we have medical debt ... and we have people who, for no fault of theirs, are going bankrupt trying to get healthy."
First published on January 8, 2021 / 3:42 PM