By Cameron Nations, T'15
Back in March of 2019, I sat, like most days, scrolling through Facebook while I drank my morning coffee. As my eyes passed over the usual political memes and pictures of someone’s trip to the lake, I stopped and blinked when I saw a post from the parish that had, years before, sent me to Sewanee for seminary.
Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois proudly proclaimed that they had abolished $4 million in medical debt for over 3,600 low-income households across south and central Illinois. My jaw dropped.
Emmanuel is a healthy parish, but $4 million is a lot of money. I wondered: How did they do it? I shot a quick message to their rector, the Rev. Beth Maynard, who told me about the organization that made it all possible— a 501(c)(3) called RIP Medical Debt.
RIP was founded by two former executives who worked in the medical debt collection industry. Instead of seeing only a way to profit from peoples’ pain, they saw an opportunity to provide assistance to those most in need. Thus RIP Medical Debt was born.
RIP Medical Debt buys large debt portfolios directly from hospitals. These portfolios target low income individuals and those insolvent due to medical debt. Because the hospital knows it cannot collect on the debt, the hospital is wiling to sell this debt at dramatically reduced rate—currently, RIP is able to forgive, on average, $100 worth of medical debt for every $1 donated to them. After purchasing these portfolios, RIP then forgives the debt rather than collecting it for a profit like a predatory debt collector would do, thereby giving these households a chance at a fresh start and a healthier credit score. Families are notified by letter that their debt has been forgiven.
The exorbitant cost of medical care is one of the most significant issues facing the United States today. According to RIP Medical Debt’s website, around 79 million Americans face a daily choice between paying a medical bill and paying for necessities like food, shelter, or utilities. Additionally, two thirds of all bankruptcies in the United States are due to issues related to medical debt, and a full quarter of all credit card debt in the US is for medical expenses.
An unexpected medical expense—and the debt that results from it—can be the domino that takes someone with a steady job and a stable living situation and puts them on a path to being stuck in a cycle of poverty.
My parish, Saint Luke’s in Birmingham, Alabama, decided to follow Emmanuel’s lead. Back in October, 2019, we embarked on a fundraising campaign with RIP Medical Debt in honor of our parish’s 70th birthday. We felt it was a fitting way to celebrate, given our patron saint’s long association with physicians and healing. In the end, with donations from parishioners, other members of the community, and a generous contribution from the Diocese of Alabama, we managed to raise just over $78,000, which allowed us to forgive over $8.1 million in oppressive medical debt for about 6,500 families across 14 counties in central Alabama.
Our campaign caught the attention of local news affiliates, and over the past two months I have appeared in interviews on our local ABC and Fox stations, as well as a couple of local newspapers. One of those stories in particular was shared on social media hundreds of times and made its way to numerous Episcopal Facebook groups, where others continued to share the story. I even had the chance to be interviewed by our local NPR station, WBHM, which featured the interview and accompanying story during Morning Edition on Christmas Eve just before Lessons and Carols from King’s College.
While it has been humbling to see the response that this story has generated, my hope (and the hope of Saint Luke’s) is that others would be moved to begin their own fundraising campaign with RIP Medical Debt to help bring relief to those in need in other parts of the nation. Many other churches and other religious organizations have already completed a campaign with RIP, but the need remains great.
The good thing is, RIP Medical Debt makes it easy for your parish to get involved. Running a fundraising campaign with RIP Medical Debt is simple, and the process can begin by filling out a form found on their website. Of course, it would be wonderful to build a society in which these kinds of initiatives weren’t needed—a society where necessary medical care wouldn’t bankrupt you and where medical debt wasn’t one of our nation’s largest contributors to poverty—but in the meantime this is one way that a church can help. For more information and to get started on your own fundraising campaign, go to ripmedicaldebt.org.