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5 times John Oliver exposed problems in corporate America

Minyoung Park
5 times John Oliver exposed problems in corporate America

John Oliver made history this week on his show “Last Week Tonight.” And it wasn’t the first time.

Oliver and HBO conducted the largest one-time giveaway in television history, beating Oprah Winfrey’s famous free-car giveaway, back in 2004. Winfrey’s car gifts amounted to $8 million; Oliver’s debt forgivenesses doubled that figure.

There’s good reason Oliver made Time’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2015. He uses his unique position and platform – his is at heart a comedy show – to do real reporting and shed light on important issues. Beginning with his latest move, here’s a look at 5 times Oliver exposed problems in corporate America and urged viewers to take action.  

1. Medical debt keeps coming back from the dead

On June 5, Oliver did a segment on the many companies that buy up consumer debt at a reduced price and then, in many instances, mercilessly hound and threaten borrowers to pay up. To illustrate how easily an individual can set up a debt collection agency, the show created one based in Mississippi. Oliver named the company “Central Asset Recovery Professionals,” or CARP, “after a bottom-feeding fish,” he explained. He made himself chairman of the board andHBO purchased $15 million worth of medical debt ($14,922,261.76, to be precise) for $60,000.

Oliver’s next step? CARP partnered with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that specializes in forgiving medical debt with no tax consequence to the debtor. The alliance allowed Oliver to forgive all the debt CARP now owned—quite a gift to the 9,000 people who owed it.

“Look, it is pretty clear by now that debt buying is a grimy business and badly needs more oversight,” said Oliver. “Because as it stands, any idiot can get into it. And I can prove that to you, because I’m an idiot and we started a debt-buying company and it was disturbingly easy.”

To be sure, Oliver isn’t suggesting all debt, medical or otherwise, is unjust and that debtors shouldn’t have to pay. “Clearly, if you have debts, you should pay them if you can,” Oliver cautioned. “But many people can find themselves in debt for no direct fault of their own.”

Oliver’s target, rather, is the billion-dollar debt industry that has made it all too easy for businesses to buy up large bundles of debt at reduced cost from the original creditors and reap the profit. American households own over $12 trillion in debt, $436 billion of which is 90 or more days overdue.

2. Aggressive tactics at Trump University

On the same June 5 show, Oliver dug deeper into the scandal over Trump University, the seminar business Donald Trump launched in 2005 and which is now facing three lawsuits stemming from complaints by former students. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has drawn heat for saying a judge presiding over one of the cases is unfit to rule because of his Mexican heritage.)

In his segment Oliver quoted New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who brought a $40 million civil suit alleging fraud against Trump U.: “We started looking at Trump University and discovered that is was a classic bait and switch game, it was a scam, starting with the fact that is was not a university.”

He also found that through a deposition related to the lawsuit, Trump admitted that he didn’t handpick instructors as the school claimed it did. And most of the instructors had no background in real estate. One “teacher” was a salesman for Lowe’s and another a manager for Buffalo Wild Wings. Oliver also found that guidelines given to teachers were basically instructions on upselling students to buy more expensive courses. If a student complained about prices, instructors were told to remind them that “Trump is the best.”

Oliver found a quote in the instructor playbook demonstrating the kind of aggressive tactics staffers were supposed to use to get new customers: “Money is never a reason for not enrolling in Trump University, if they really believe in you and your product they will find the money. You are not doing any favor by letting someone use lack of money as an excuse.”

3. Miss America blasted on scholarship claims

Miss America, the organization that runs the pageant of the same name, has long called itself “the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States.” In 2014, John Oliver disproved that claim.

Miss America said at the time that it provides $45 million in scholarship funds annually. Oliver found that Miss America offers recipients multiple scholarships to different colleges and then counts each scholarship offered as part of the $45 million, even though a recipient can only attend one school. Only a fraction of the scholarships are provided each year. In 2012, the actual sum paid out to women was $0.

In a statement following the show, the Miss America Organization issued a statement, saying:  “As with any scholarship, the full amount awarded may not always be used as recipients’ plans change or evolve. The Miss America Organization works every day to administer these scholarships to young women across the country and encourages our participants to utilize these scholarships provided by colleges and universities nationally who partner to fund education.”

4. The bad deal of the for-profit college

Oliver highlighted another troubling financial issue, the skyrocketing student debt graduates are saddled with when they leave school and continues to burden them well into their 20s and 30s. (The average college graduate has $37,000 in student debt, according to estimates.)

Some of the causes of this continuous rise include the slashed funding for education in a number of states, public institutions raising tuition rates, and the growing number of for-profit colleges. This last issue became the focus of an Oliver segment in 2014.

“For-profit schools account for nearly a third of all student loans despite having just 13% of our country’s students,” Oliver said. “That is way out of proportion,” adding that for-profit schools are five to six times the cost of a community college.

“Last Week Tonight” examined one of the for-profit schools, ITT Technical Institute’s public filings, and found that in 2012, just a quarter of the school’s 115 students graduated and only 13 found work in their field after graduation.

In 2014 the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), a for-profit school trade group, successfully lobbied against gainful employment regulations proposed by the Obama administration. The rules require that schools demonstrate that its students are making livable wages after graduation, or else the schools risk losing federal student aid.

In response, Oliver provided viewers with a complaint form they could fill out and send to the APSCU – mainly as a way to pester the group.

Oliver’s show may have had an impact. In July 2015, the Obama administration implemented stricter standards on for-profit schools, requiring “that most for-profit programs and certificate programs at private non-profit and public institutions prepare students for ‘gainful employment in a recognized occupation.’”

The student debt crisis goes far beyond the for-profit schools, but they have exacerbated the issue. “If they went away, student debt problem will still be here,” he said. “Because all leaders have decided that while education is incredibly important, it is not important enough to actually pay for.”

5. How doctors get in bed with pharma companies   

Last year John Oliver showed a news segment that found that “70% of Americans take at least one prescription drug, more than half of us take two. Researchers say a record of 4 billion prescriptions were written in the 2011.”

Those are noteworthy numbers, but Oliver decided to focus not on how many people take prescription drugs, but on the marketing of those drugs.

"Drugs aren't like most other products," Oliver said, “because you need someone's permission to buy them." That’s why you will almost always hear the line, “Ask your doctor” at the end of a drug ad on TV. And people might assume that doctors have their best interest in mind when prescribing medication, but as Oliver found, that’s not always the case. “Last Week Tonight” reported that most docs get offered thousands of dollars in “promotional payments” to offer patients overpriced and sometimes unnecessary drugs. Pharmaceutical reps are trained to offer doctors these payments – most commonly in the form of meals and drinks – in exchange for promoting the drugs to their clients or colleagues.

To be sure, the fact that doctors are often paid by pharmaceutical companies to push their drugs is not news. But “Last Week Tonight” took it a step further by directing viewers to a searchable federal database, accessible to the public thanks to the Affordable Care Act, that shows all the benefits every doctor gets from pharma firms. “There is information on this database you should know,” he said. “And this should really just be the beginning. If drug companies really want to regain our trust, maybe they should let us know the effect their money has on doctors.”

Oliver found that drug companies spend nearly $4 billion marketing to consumers, but an estimated $24 billion marketing to doctors. He cited multiple reports on top prescribers for certain drugs who were often getting money from the companies that made them.

“Which is worrying,” he said, “because we trust doctors.”


Minyoung Park is a reporting intern at Yahoo Finance.

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