ST. LOUIS — Thousands of St. Louis-area families were freed from a major financial burden thanks to a charitable effort that is increasingly popular among churches and other organizations trying to help the needy — eliminating medical debt.
Money raised at more than a dozen United Church of Christ congregations and a donation from the St. Louis-based Deaconess Foundation wiped away nearly $13 million in medical debt for 11,108 families in St. Louis city and county. United Church of Christ officials and civic leaders announced details Saturday. The church was also sending letters this weekend to those whose debt was wiped out.
Rebecca Turner, a pastor in Maplewood, Missouri, said that for many families, medical debt is "often so enormous that there is no way to repay it. Very often they lose their homes, their vehicles, their wages are garnished, and once that happens, it's nearly impossible to get out of poverty.
"It's our prayer that for many of the families who receive this forgiveness of debt, it will be a fresh start," Turner said. "We pray it gives them hope."
It is believed that more than 43 million Americans owe $75 billion in past-due medical debt. Hospitals and other health care organizations often write off bills deemed uncollectible, but they also sell the debt to collection agencies at a huge discount, often about 1 cent on the dollar. The collection agencies then make money by seeking payment from debtors who are often poor and lack adequate health insurance.
The St. Louis-area congregations worked with RIP Medical Debt, a New York state-based nonprofit that buys medical debt and works with churches and charitable groups to pay it off.
Thirteen United Church of Christ congregations raised $65,000 and the Deaconess Foundation, a UCC ministry that seeks to improve the health of the St. Louis-area needy, contributed $40,000.
"We recognize access to health care is a persistent challenge for the 1 in 5 children living in poverty in the St. Louis region," said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation. "Furthermore, medical debt is a drag on family stability and economic mobility for these families."
United Church of Christ performed a similar service in October in Chicago, using donations to clear $5.3 million in medical debt for 5,888 South Side families with average medical debt of $907 each.
In December, a Los Angeles church, Christian Assembly, raised $53,000 to pay off $5.3 million in medical debt for nearly 6,000 households in Southern California.
The Christian television network TCT, based in Marion, Illinois, wiped out about $2.5 million in medical debt from hundreds of families in southeast Missouri and southern Illinois.
RIP Medical Debt spokesman Daniel Lempert said a $10 donation can buy and eliminate as much as $1,000 in delinquent debt. The organization has eliminated more than $1 billion in debt for more than 1 million beneficiaries, he said. Individual family debt forgiveness has ranged from $100 to more than $250,000, Lempert said.