A Tennessee congregation erases $4.2 million in debt for people in need.
© 2020 Eva Vázquez
Due to the exorbitant cost of medical care in the United States, more than 137 million Americans are struggling financially over medical bills, while more than two-thirds of people who file for bankruptcy say that medical bills were a major reason for their dire circumstances.
But in February, thousands of low-income households in East Tennessee learned that their debilitating medical debt had been forgiven and erased, thanks to Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and its partners.
In a one-month fundraising campaign that ended in December 2019, Oak Ridge UU raised $21,000, which, with a matching pledge from a local nonprofit, wiped out the whopping $4.2 million in medical debt owed by about 4,300 individuals and families in three East Tennessee counties. The congregation partnered with nonprofit RIP Medical Debt to abolish the debt by buying it in bulk for pennies on the dollar and then forgiving it.
At the end of February, when the forgiveness process was complete, the congregation contacted the households with the surprising news. Instead of a bill collector’s angry phone call or letter, they instead got a letter saying “Love, the Oak Ridge UU Church—your debt is gone,” said the Rev. Jake Bohstedt Morrill, Oak Ridge’s minister. “It’s a pretty easy way for a local church to have a big impact and build bridges with people with whom there might not be common ground.”
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Auburn, Alabama, is currently the second UU congregation working with RIP Medical Debt to buy and forgive medical debt. Before the covid-19 outbreak, the congregation had planned to launch its fundraising campaign at the end of March, said the Rev. Chris Rothbauer, who learned about RIP through Oak Ridge’s efforts and a campaign in northern Alabama by an Episcopal church. Rothbauer was called as Auburn’s minister in August 2019; their formal installation, scheduled for the end of April, was to feature a performance by Grammy Award-winning musician and producer Larry Mitchell, with all proceeds from the concert to go to the debt relief effort. Due to the pandemic, both the medical debt relief campaign and Rothbauer’s installation were postponed to the fall, when Mitchell still plans to perform, they said. The congregation has been involved in trying to get Alabama legislators to restrict payday loans, so Rothbauer knew people would be interested in medical debt relief. They hope to include the wider community in the fundraising effort, and also, like Oak Ridge, to find a matching donor.
The pandemic will only increase the need that many will have for help with medical debt, Rothbauer said. “Our hospital here in Auburn is overwhelmed right now with [covid-19] cases, so we know it will leave a lot of people in debt because of the way our [healthcare] system is structured. We know when we emerge from this, people are going to be in bad financial straits, so while we’re sad we couldn’t launch right away, we know it’s still going to be an issue when this is over.”
Retiring medical debt for people in need has become increasingly popular among faith groups. Almost $13 million in medical debt owed by thousands of families in the St. Louis, Missouri, area was wiped out recently by more than a dozen United Church of Christ congregations along with a nonprofit foundation. In December 2019, nearly 6,000 Chicago families had their medical debt—averaging $907 per family—erased by a partnership between area churches and RIP Medical Debt.
RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by two former debt collectors who decided to apply their knowledge of the debt collection industry to help people in need. RIP has worked with a variety of individuals, groups, companies, and other donors to forgive $1.4 billion in medical debt across the country, assisting more than 650,000 families and individuals, according to its website.
RIP buys medical debt in bulk for steep discounts, typically pennies on the dollar. It does not choose the specific families or individuals to help but operates via geographical debt relief. If a donor or group of donors is interested in buying and forgiving debt, RIP first determines if there is enough qualifying medical debt in a region, meaning that at least $1.5 million is owed by low-income people. If so, RIP partners with the donors to buy that debt and forgive it, said RIP spokesperson Daniel Lempert.
RIP Medical Debt is “a great partner who made it so easy,” said Morrill. “It really helped that they are so organized and prepared to support this effort.” Among other things, RIP helps donors organize their fundraising efforts, if desired. If the $15,000 minimum seems a daunting amount to raise, UU congregations could join with other congregations or groups to raise that amount, Morrill suggested.
The Oak Ridge congregation’s campaign began in November 2019, after Morrill saw an episode of the TV show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on widespread abuses within the debt-buying industry, abuses first widely exposed in the book Bad Paper by investigative journalist Jake Halpern. Oliver emphasized that many people get into unavoidable debt due to medical treatment. One man ran up $80,000 in four days of emergency healthcare costs; without it, he would have died.
When Morrill suggested to the congregation’s board and executive team the idea of partnering with RIP, with the goal of raising $15,000 before Christmas, they quickly agreed. They contacted RIP to begin the partnership process and confirm there was enough qualifying debt among residents in nearby counties.
“The same day [Morrill] brought the idea to the congregation, we had enough people willing to commit their time and effort to this campaign to form a small ministry group and individuals had already pledged over $1,000,” said Amanda Law, a member of the ministry group.
“For me, personally, the reason I decided to join the small ministry, and the reason I was so passionate about this project, is the enormous impact we could have on people’s lives,” added Law. “We have a broken healthcare system in America. . . . People shouldn’t have to be doomed to financial ruin because they got sick or needed medical care. This was a way to fight back against a broken system and bring much-needed relief to members of our community who have fallen victim to the American healthcare system.”
Initially, Oak Ridge UU aimed to raise the minimum RIP requires, $15,000, which would result in the erasure of $1.5 million in debt because each dollar raised wipes out $100 in debt. Through a member of the congregation, a regional fund then contacted them to make the match offer, which doubled the impact, so that each dollar in donations would erase $200 in debt for people and families in Anderson, Roane, and Cocke counties.
At the Sunday service when Morrill shared the idea with the congregation, which has about 315 members, people began writing checks on the spot, he said, and one person “came in off the street, not even a church member” with a $1,000 donation. Several donors are themselves struggling with medical debt and gave ten or twenty dollars, “which is a lot, for their circumstances,” said Morrill. They realized that the relief effort wouldn’t benefit them personally, but “they said, ‘I just want to help someone else.’”
While the effort “won’t fix the structural, generational poverty in these households, it’s something,” said Morrill, who was interviewed about the campaign on what he describes as a local “right-wing, Trump-supporting radio station.” Many people called into the program to say they themselves or people they knew were struggling with medical debt, he said.
Oak Ridge UU Church is well known in East Tennessee for its many community ministries, including free community meals and donating half of its Sunday offering each week. The medical debt project was the biggest effort it has made in such a short time period. The congregation celebrated the fundraising with an event after Sunday services on January 12, in which congregants wrote thank you notes to everyone who made a donation.
“This is a good Red State strategy because not only is it finding common ground but helping your neighbor can turn into a conversation about healthcare reform or systemic reform,” Morrill said. Medical debt “is happening all over the country. The system is broken, which I know people can agree with even if they don’t agree with particular solutions.”
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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