How Churches Are Erasing Health Care Obligations for Thousands of Families in Need
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“I was sick and you looked after me.“
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By Justin Horey
Julie was a single mother of two when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her health insurance helped cover the cost of treatments that ultimately put the disease in remission, but she was still left with $18,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses. Despite the generosity of family members and her own personal commitment to making installment payments on the various bills, Julie was unable to pay it all. Like the estimated 43 million other Americans with unpaid medical debt, Julie eventually had her accounts written off as “bad debt” and sent to collection agencies.
In the summer of 2019, Julie unexpectedly received a letter notifying her that all of her remaining medical debt had been forgiven through the generosity of Bethany Christian Church in Washington, Indiana. Julie is not a member of Bethany Christian, though she is personally acquainted with senior pastor Matt Merold and his family. She wasn’t chosen because of any connection to the church; she was one of 3,227 people in six Indiana counties who had a total of $4 million in medical debt forgiven by the congregation. It all cost the church just $15,000.
RIP Medical Debt
Bethany Christian Church was able to initiate the forgiveness of medical debts of thousands by donating the proceeds of a special offering to New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, which locates, purchases, and abolishes what it calls “unpayable medical debt.” The organization negotiates to purchase bundled debt portfolios from collection agencies at a steep discount—on average, just a penny on the dollar. Because RIP exists entirely to forgive medical debts, it seeks donations to cover the costs of the portfolios it purchases instead of attempting to collect on them.
RIP offers debt forgiveness to Americans who meet three criteria. Potential recipients must earn less than twice the federal poverty level, which varies by state and the size of the household. They must have a financial hardship as a result of medical expenses greater than or equal to 5 percent of their annual income. Finally, they must be facing insolvency because their debts are greater than their assets.
Medical debt forgiveness is not an easy way for people of means to avoid paying their bills. It is a purposeful campaign to show grace and love to people who need it.
A Growing Trend
Bethany Christian is not the only church to forgive the medical debts of its neighbors; in fact, the congregation is not the only church in Indiana to do so. Northview Church, with 11 campuses throughout central Indiana, erased $7.8 million in medical debt for nearly 6,000 families in the spring of 2019. (Read more about Northview’s story in Steve Poe’s article this month.)
Pathway Church in Wichita, Kansas, gained national media attention for its debt forgiveness efforts after Easter last year, when USA Today published a story about the congregation. Pathway raised $22,000 in a special offering and managed to erase $2.2 million in medical debt in Kansas. As the article noted, Pathway’s contribution was enough to cover “all available debt for every Kansan facing imminent insolvency because of medical expenses they couldn’t afford to pay—1,600 people in all.”
Giving Through the Church
At Bethany Christian Church, forgiving medical debt is just one way the congregation is trying to create a culture of generosity. Matt Merold said he wants to teach people not only to give to the church, but to give through the church. To that end, each month BCC invites people to donate to the “Dollar Difference,” a special offering the church uses to bless local families in need. Merold and the church have seen how the program affects the recipients month after month. He said, “Just a drop of generosity is able to soften even the hardest heart.”
Last summer, Bethany Christian originally planned to pay off debts for recipients in three local counties. Based on RIP’s standard formula, the $15,000 raised by the church was expected to pay off $1.5 million of debt. In the end, that amount was able to forgive more than $4 million of debt in six counties.
“It was pretty awesome what God was able to do through the work of his people,” Merold said. “Many of the recipients wondered if the letter was actually true—that a church really did pay off their medical bills.”
Northview Church runs the “Northview Dollar Club”—an initiative similar to Bethany’s “Dollar Difference” offering—through which it collected $40,000.
For Northview senior pastor Steve Poe, erasing the medical debt of nearly 6,000 families “was a big win all the way around.” Beyond the obvious benefit of blessing people in the region, the project generated positive publicity for the congregation in both local and national media. After he was interviewed by Fox News, Poe heard from people nationwide who wanted to learn more about how their churches could become involved.
“I would highly recommend that other churches do this,” Poe said.
How Your Church Can Help
Despite the involvement of churches like Bethany, Northview, and Pathway, tens of millions of Americans are still responsible for medical expenses they cannot pay. RIP Medical Debt accepts donations from individuals, but the need for larger, lump-sum donations from churches and other organizations is great. When churches forgive medical debts for their neighbors, thousands of people experience the love of Christ—some of them for the first time.
“This is a great example of churches meeting people’s needs in practical ways as a demonstration of God’s love,”ť Poe said.
Americans in all 50 states face insolvency because of medical debt, and churches in all 50 states are able to help. For each dollar raised, churches can work with RIP Medical Debt to forgive an average of $100 for neighboring families who cannot pay their healthcare expenses. Sometimes, as Merold and Poe can attest, RIP is able to negotiate even better terms.
“A God Thing“
When their medical debts are forgiven, families can begin to rebuild their credit scores and their finances—often narrowly escaping bankruptcy in the process. When churches bring about the forgiveness of those debts, God receives the glory.
After being notified her medical debt had been paid, Julie wrote to Matt Merold and Bethany Christian Church, saying in part, “I found this to be a God thing. I sincerely thank you for this [medical debt] forgiveness—from God, your people, and you!”
Countless Americans undergo successful medical treatment each year that saves their lives but destroys their finances. The lingering obligations and calls from collection agencies bring heartache and sleepless nights. Thanks to the generosity of churches like Bethany, Northside, and Pathway, many of those patients can finally, truly rest in (financial) peace.
Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California.