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Small contributions add up: Idaho church plays big role to reduce state’s medical debt

So many people are just one car accident, one slip on the ice, one complicated pregnancy, one bad diagnosis away from a tsunami of medical debt.

So many people live paycheck to paycheck, with rent due and student loans to pay back and a balance on their credit cards so big it hurts to look at it. They’re barely making everyday life work financially, much less able to pay for a trip to the hospital.

What if churches could do something about that – by using their resources to pay off a chunk of their community’s unpaid medical debt? Or what about individual Presbyterians, or a group of family or friends? Here’s a story about two women from New York state, a retired chemist and a psychoanalyst, who raised $12,500 to erase medical debt for people in their region.

Marci Glass, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho, understands something about people with huge medical bills and no ability to pay them. She knows a young man from the church she serves who has struggled with substance abuse, but then turned things around — he found a job and was building a better life. Then he contracted pneumonia and ended up in the intensive care unit. Because he couldn’t go to work, he lost his job and his health insurance – and now his medical bills are huge.

Photos provided by Marci Glass

Because Idaho is one of the states that resisted an expansion of the Medicaid program – it finally came as a voter initiative that the legislature fought – another woman from Glass’ congregation has been living with no health insurance. Like a lot of others, she falls in the gap — she makes too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to be able to afford to purchase health insurance on the open market.

Stories like these – what she’s seen in her own congregation and community – were what forged a connection when Glass watched an episode of comedian John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show, and heard him talking about forgiving medical debt through a nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt.

The idea is this: When hospitals and health care providers have uncollected medical debt – all those thousands of dollars they charge people who don’t have health insurance or which the insurance won’t cover – the medical providers often sell that debt to debt consolidators, for pennies on the dollar. So the hospitals make a little money by selling the debt. And the debt collection firms purchase the opportunity to go after people for much larger sums of money than they paid to acquire that debt.

After seeing Oliver’s show, Glass brought the idea to the church’s session last summer of having Southminster come up with the money to erase $1.5 million of medical debt in Idaho – which would mean raising at least $15,000, the minimum that RIP Medical Debt requires in order to target debt relief efforts in a particular geographic area, Glass said. RIP takes on medical debt that’s been incurred but not yet sold to a debt collection agency – its website says the nonprofit has so far abolished $919 million in medical debt, and estimates that Americans owe approximately $1 trillion in medical debt accumulated over the last eight to 10 years.

Glass said hers is “not a congregation with a lot of cash around” – Southminster typically has about 140 in worship. But she told the session that coming up with $15,000 could erase about $1.5 million in medical debt for people in Idaho, and that might be one way to live into the commitment of being part of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 initiative, which includes trying to address systemic poverty.

Erasing the debt “doesn’t actually fix the system,” said Glass, who serves on the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. “The system of health care delivery is still putting people in debt and bankruptcy. But at least it would put some people away from predatory debt collectors.”

Southminster raised about $9,500 – through individual donations and group efforts. A retired woman made greeting cards and sold them during the church coffee hour, then matched money she’d raised – amassing about $350 for the cause. A crafting group held a holiday market on Southminster’s lawn, contributing some of the proceeds.

And the Presbytery of Boise voted Nov. 2 to contribute $5,500 – putting the effort over the $15,000 mark.

Idaho currently has $907,000 in medical debt available for purchase, she said – the debt of 549 people that hasn’t yet gone to consolidators. The rest of the funds likely will go to erase medical debt in Arizona.

What has Southminster learned from this?

Small contributions add up.

Mission can go beyond traditional church projects. Presbyterians can be involved in the deepest concerns of a nation and community, such as mass incarceration, hunger, the opioid epidemic, educational inequities, and more.

Pay attention. Make connections. Listen broadly. Ideas for creative ministry can come from everywhere.