The timeliness of a new campaign launched by members of Peace Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Washington to forgive the medical debt of people across Franklin and four neighboring counties is not lost on Pastor Aimée Appell.
In fact, the current COVID-19 pandemic makes her feel this cause is vitally important now more than ever.
“We started this in December before we had any inkling of what was coming,” Appell told The Missourian last week. “Now, medical debt is one of the things that most worries me with this coronavirus. What is going to happen to people in our communities who are under-insured or not insured at all who can’t afford to get tested or, if testing is free, what if they need treatment?”
She worries that people who are already in medical debt who get sick with the novel coronavirus will wait as long as possible to seek medical help, “because the longer they are in the hospital, the more it’s going to cost. And in that time, not only are they possibly infecting other people, their own chances of recovery get lower the longer they wait.
“This is the time we can help some people with that,” said Appell. “I have a feeling the amount of medical debt in this country is going to skyrocket in the next few weeks.”
Comedian Raises Awareness
Appell became aware of the crushing reality of medical debt through a segment done more than three years ago by comedian John Oliver for his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver highlighted a nonprofit organization, RIP Medical Debt, that uses cash donations to buy up people’s medical debt for pennies on the dollar and then forgive it so they no longer owe anything.
In fact, Oliver actually donated enough funds to RIP Medical Debt to eliminate $15 million in medical debt.
Appell began educating herself on the effects of medical debt on people’s lives and the broader community, and the numbers were shocking:
• Every day 79 million Americans choose between paying their medical bills and basic needs like food and shelter;
• 66 percent of all bankruptcies in the United States are tied to medical debt;
• 25 percent of all US credit card debt is medical debt;
• 42.9 million Americans have unpaid medical bills, which creates an adverse impact on debtor patients, physicians and hospitals (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau);
• Six in 10 of both insured and uninsured people say they have difficulty in paying other bills as a result of medical debt. Over a third were unable to pay for food, heat or housing because of medical bills. (Kaiser Family Foundation & New York Times)
• Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults under age 65, or 116 million people, had medical bill problems or debt, went without needed care because of cost, were uninsured for a time or were under-insured — insured but had high out-of-pocket medical expenses or deductibles relative to income. (Kaiser Family Foundation & New York Times);
As the leader of a Christian community, Appell felt compelled to help where she could. Members of Peace Lutheran’s outreach committee agreed.
They contacted RIP Medical Debt for more information on how Peace Lutheran could get involved.
RIP Medical Debt
RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by two former debt collections executives, Craig Antico and Jerry Ashton, who “used their expertise and compassion to create a unique way to forgive medical debt: . . . use donations to buy large bundles of medical debt and then forgive that debt with no tax consequences to donors or recipients,” according to the www.ripmedicaldebt.org website.
Since then, the organization, which is based in New York, has been able to eliminate nearly $1.4 billion in medical debts for more than 650,000 individuals and families.
“The way the system works is the hospital or whoever holds the debt only try to collect it for so long, and then they sell it to a collections agency,” said Appell. “They are basically selling off your debt for pennies on the dollar to a collection agency who is then trying to collect the whole amount of that original debt and keeping the profit, which they have the right to do.”
RIP Medical Debt is stepping in to buy that debt before it gets turned over to a collection agency, Appell said. And rather than try to collect the debt, they forgive it entirely.
The nonprofit works with third-party credit data providers to searches through large debt portfolios to locate accounts meeting their criteria for relief and then negotiates to buy millions of dollars of this debt at a steep discount, usually a penny or less on the dollar, Appell explained.
It’s important to note that RIP Medical Debt doesn’t purchase just anyone’s medical debt. Specific criteria must be met. They look for:
Individuals who make less than two times the federal poverty level;
Individuals with financial hardship, meaning 5 percent or more of their annual income goes to out-of-pocket medical expenses; and
Individuals who are insolvent (their debts are greater than their assets).
In Missouri, that includes more than $30 million worth of medical debt.
In Franklin County, it includes $236,900 worth of medical debt.
“Those are the people we want to help,” said Appell. “Those are the people who are calling us (at Peace) on a regular basis asking for help with bills. And those are the people who members of the community are perhaps more eager or willing to help, since they are their neighbors.”
$15,000 Can Forgive $1.5 Million
In setting up a campaign to raise funds, RIP Medical Debt likes to target about $1.5 million in medical debt, said Appell. And since every $1 donated can eliminate $100 in debt, that put Peace’s fundraising goal at $15,000.
That will cover the medical debt of qualified people living in Franklin ($237,000); Warren ($59,000), Gasconade ($26,000), Washington ($358,000); and Jefferson ($856,000) counties for a total of $1,536,900 in medical debt.
“So if we meet our goal, we would retire all of the medical debt that RIP Medical Debt has access to in those five counties, which means those people would receive letters in the mail that say, ‘Your medical debt has been retired or forgiven. You don’t need to worry about this anymore,’ ” Appell explained.
The recent economic uncertainty makes now a challenging time to be launching a fundraiser, but for Christians, doing this in the time of Lent and the following Easter season is meaningful.
“The title of our campaign is ‘Killing Debt Brings New Life,’ and to me that is the Easter story of new life coming out of difficult situations,” said Appell. “It is an opportunity to offer that in a really tangible way to our neighbors.”
Peace Lutheran has a crowd-funding page (https://secure.qgiv.com/event/kdbnl/) on the RIP Medical Debt website where you can find more information, make a donation and see the progress that has been made.
The campaign will continue through the Easter season, ending May 31 on Pentecost Sunday.
“Our congregation is dedicated to reaching out to our neighbors, as we live out our mission to be a community bound by Christ to break boundaries,” the Peace campaign page reads.
“It is our hope that this effort will bring alive the message of Easter, making new life possible for families in our community who are burdened by the choice between paying down medical debt and paying for housing, utilities and food.”
Peace Lutheran member Kathy Hurlbert, who also serves on the outreach committee that is leading the campaign, shared her personal experience with medical debt.
“My husband died in 2012 after a hard-fought battle with cancer,” Hurlbert writes on the campaign page. “At the worst moment in my life, I came across a bill for more than $20,000 among his papers. This happened even though he had access to Medicare.
“At first, I had no idea what to do with this bill — I was terrified. Fortunately, he had a small life insurance policy that my father had sold him more than 40 years ago, and I was able to use it to settle the bill. Many of our neighbors are not so lucky and are overwhelmed by crushing medical expenses that they cannot realistically hope to repay.”
How to Contribute
Donating online directly through RIP Medical Debt is the easiest way to contribute to the campaign, said Appell.
People who can’t give online or who chose not to can still make a donation. Checks made out to Peace Lutheran Church, with RIP Medical Debt in the memo section, can be mailed to Peace Lutheran at 5 Scenic Dr., Washington, MO 63090.
The church will direct the funds to the campaign.
RIP Medical Debt also will accept checks. Checks payable to RIP Medical Debt with Killing Debt Campaign in the memo section can be mailed to RIP Medical Debt, 80 Theodore Fremd Ave., Rye, NY 10580
The goal is to raise $15,000. Any funds over that will be used to pay down the medical debts of others who qualify, said Appell.
“Killing Debt Brings New Life” is a one-time campaign. Although new medical debt for people in Franklin County will appear in the future, Appell said she is hopeful that either another group can lead a campaign or, better yet, that people will be inspired to talk to their legislators about better health care options for people.
“I don’t want to get political, but regardless of how we think that looks, we have a responsibility as Christians and as neighbors, any people of good faith have a responsibility to advocate for the least among us, those who have the least access and are the most vulnerable and to push for what we think would be the best options to help those people,” said Appell.
If nothing else, she is hopeful that this campaign will educate people about the reality of medical debt.
“This is much deeper than people just not wanting to pay their bills,” Appell commented.
Members of the Peace Lutheran outreach committee include Pastor Appell, Carol Winkler, Kathy Rust, Kathy Hurlbert, Barb and Gary Johnson and Jacque McHugh.