The Washington Post

For many congregati­ons, wiping out medical debt is a popular calling


durham, n.c. When members of First Presbyteri­an Church decided to launch a capital campaign to expand and renovate their imposing Gothic Revival edifice, they also wanted to take on a service project to help the poor.

The congregati­on settled on raising $50,000 to eliminate medical debt for people living below the poverty line.

Helping ease medical debt, especially for people of color, is an increasing­ly popular social justice project among liberal Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregati­ons. Over the past few years, some 800 U.S. congregati­ons have partnered with RIP Medical Debt to do so.

The nine-year-old nonprofit uses donations to buy large bundled portfolios of medical debt from collection agencies and other third parties at a steep discount. It then turns around and notifies people their debts have been erased.

“For churches seeking to make a difference for those suffering under the weight of debt, this is an instrument we can use to try to take it off their shoulders so everyone can flourish,” said the Rev. Mindy Douglas, pastor of First Presbyteri­an. Last year, the church was able to raise almost $26,000 and pay off $5 million in medical debt in Durham and surroundin­g counties. This spring, the church will kick off the second leg of its campaign with the goal of raising at least $25,000 more.

Eliminatin­g medical debt has become a popular cause over the past few years. Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams donated $1.34 million to RIP through her political action committee, wiping out $212 million in medical debt for 108,000 people in five states. Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young and New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas have also donated to RIP.

Last year, philanthro­pist Mackenzie Scott added $30 million to the $50 million she donated to RIP in 2020, jump-starting the nonprofit’s expansion.

Medical debt is a huge problem in the United States. Americans owe at least $195 billion of medical debt, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than 100 million people — about 41 percent of U.S. adults — have debt from medical or dental bills. Among Black and Hispanic Americans, that figure jumps to about 60 percent.

RIP’S model of buying debt at discount prices is especially attractive to donors because on average, every $1 donated abolishes about $100 in face value medical debt.

To date, RIP has abolished $8.5 billion in medical debt and relieved 5.4 million Americans of their unpaid bills.

While donations from religious groups constitute less than 20 percent of RIP’S overall revenue, they have become an increasing­ly common way for congregati­ons to engage in social justice work.

One reason may be that debt relief has deep biblical resonance. The Book of Leviticus speaks of the jubilee year as a time when the people of Israel were required to free enslaved people and cancel debts.

“It’s a wonderful way to take ancient biblical values and actualize them,” said Rabbi Ari Hart, whose Agudath Jacob Synagogue in Skokie, Ill., partnered with two predominan­tly Black churches in Chicago to raise $10,000 for medical debt relief last year.

RIP used the money to purchase $1.9 million in debt and unburden 2,327 people in the Chicago area of their medical debts.

The campaign also coincided with the Jewish sabbatical year known as “shmita” or the year of release. Hart said he would propose a similar campaign during the next Jewish sabbatical year, which falls in 2028.

The Mid-michigan Campaign, started by St. John’s Episcopal Church in Midland, Mich., is another interfaith venture. Last year, it raised $62,452 to abolish $28 million worth of medical debt among 14,241 people.

This year, it has launched another campaign with Midland Area Interfaith Friends, a group of 14 congregati­ons, including Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i.

“It’s love in action,” said the Rev. Jim Harrison, priest in charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which has committed $20,000 from the church’s endowment income toward this year’s fundraiser.

Harrison acknowledg­ed that raising money for medical debt relief won’t solve the larger structural issues created by a health system Americans can’t afford. The United States has the most expensive health-care system of any country.

But it can bring relief. “This is treating a symptom, not a cause, but it’s something we can do and I think we need to,” Harrison said.

For many congregati­ons, such as First Presbyteri­an, debt relief is also a form of reparation­s. In 2021, the Durham church began studying about reparation­s. Congregant­s read “From Here to Equality: Reparation­s for Black Americans in the Twenty-first Century” and discussed ways they could get involved with William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, the book’s authors.

The service project with RIP was one of the outcomes of the reparation­s study. The church explicitly targeted North Carolina counties with a Black or Indigenous population of 50 percent or more for debt relief.

“We see disproport­ionate outcomes in our health-care system for people of color,” said Sharon Hirsch, a member of First Presbyteri­an who serves on the church’s racial equity task force.

A 2022 Urban Institute study found that counties with high shares of uninsured, low-income or Black population­s have higher rates of medical debt. Southern states that have not expanded Medicaid eligibilit­y for low-income Americans were more likely to have high levels of medical debt.

Helping those counties address that debt is one area where the church could make systemic change, Hirsch said.

“I just don’t know any other example where your money can go that far and have such a positive impact on an individual,” Hirsch said. “This is targeted relief that will reduce economic stress and support families in need of economic relief.”

“It’s a wonderful way to take ancient biblical values and actualize them.” Rabbi Ari Hart, of Agudath jacob synagogue in skokie, ill., which partnered with two predominan­tly Black churches in chicago to raise $10,000 for medical debt relief last year

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