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US churches relieve medical debt for those on low incomes

31 January 2020

Fund-raising efforts lift burden from thousands of families


The Revd Cameron Nations, of St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Mountain Brook

The Revd Cameron Nations, of St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Mountain Brook

A CHURCH in the United States has paid off the medical debts of 6500 families in its state, including those on very low incomes or who are facing bankruptcy.

St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Mountain Brook, in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, originally hoped to raise enough money to pay off the debts of people struggling in their home city.

But after their fund-raising campaign was kick-started by a donation from the diocese of Alabama, the $78,000 total raised was enough to pay off $8.1 million in medical debt, reaching struggling households across the state.

In the US, hospitals sell off their medical debts to debt collectors, who buy them at a cut-price rate and then chase households for the money.

But with support from churches such as St Luke’s, the charity RIP Medical Debt has been buying up the debt instead to “forgive” the debt.

The Associate Rector of St Luke’s, the Revd Cameron Nations, heard of the charity through another church, and suggested that his church adopt the idea for its 70th-anniversary fund-raising efforts. In a congregation that includes many doctors and medical professionals, the idea really took off, he said.

“In a way, we are really sad we have to do it, of course. There are so many people out there who get trapped in a cycle of debt. When I started in this role, I was really surprised by the number of calls I had from people needing assistance, and the reason they needed help was because of their medical debts. This can then have a domino effect on their life.”

Although the church is not told the names of those whose debts are paid off, news of some recipients has begun to trickle in through the congregation. Letters informing people that their debts had been forgiven arrived over the Christmas period.

Mr Nations said that he expected that within his congregation there were almost certainly people struggling with paying medical bills. “But we didn’t have anyone say we should be looking after our own first. People in the congregation are already asking: when can we do it again?”

RIP Medical Debt has reported an increase in the number of churches working with it over the past year. Since it was set up five years ago, the charity has redeemed $1,020,232,792 billion in medical debts, helping out 520 million individuals and families. The charity particularly targets the debts of those who have been bankrupted by medical debt, or who are on very low incomes.

St Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Mamaroneck, in New York, is another church that has donated money to RIP Medical Debt, resulting in the repayment of nearly $10 million dollars in medical debt for 10,157 people.

And Emmanuel Memorial Church in Champaign, Illinois, bought nearly $4 million dollars in medical-debt relief for 3617 families.

RIP Medical Debt said that 95 different faith-based groups — overwhelmingly churches — worked with them in 2019 to pay off a total of $227 million in medical debts.

The charity is not religiously or politically affiliated. It was set up by two former debt-collectors, who decided to use their experience to forgive debts rather to than collect them. It says that three quarters of people forced into bankruptcy because of medical debt had health insurance.

About 43 million Americans owe $75 billion in medical debt.

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