The Atrius Health Equity Foundation has set a goal to clear $500 million in medical debt for Massachusetts residents in the next five years.

The foundation was formed following the acquisition of Atrius Health by Optum with a goal to close health disparities in Massachusetts. After its official launch last summer, Ann Hwang, president of the foundation, and other staff members went on a listening tour around the state to learn what communities needed and decide where to put its $150 million in assets.

Among the most common concerns, Hwang said, were economic opportunities and access to care. So the foundation set out to abolish medical debt.

One in eight people in Massachusetts report having family medical debt, despite 88% of them having health insurance, according the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis.

“It deters people from seeking care because they’re worried about the fact that they have an outstanding debt,” Hwang said, adding that people of color are often hit hardest. “That’s why we think it’s so important to focus on relieving that debt.”

The Atrius Health Equity Foundation has committed to invest $10 million into this initiative, and is working with three groups, RIP Medical Debt, Health Law Advocates and Health Care For All.

With RIP Medical Debt, a national charity, the foundation will purchase or secure donations of medical debt from hospitals and other providers to abolish it, tracking how much is debt is erased in the next two years.

Over the next five years, Health Law Advocates will provide assistance to people with medical debt, including through legal representation to help contest it, and to answer questions about finances. With Health Care For All, the foundation is working on policy solutions at the state level to prevent debt from accumulating again.

“It’s important to understand that medical debt is not like other types of debt, because it’s usually incurred involuntarily and unexpectedly,” said Ashley Blackburn, senior director of policy and government relations at Health Care for All. “The foundation’s investment in this work will allow Health Care for All to really stand up a diverse coalition to think about tackling state based policy solutions to prevent the debt from happening in the first place.”

Read the article on Boston Business Journal’s website.