In time for Christmas, Presbyterians help forgive $13.3 million in medical debt across the Midwest

Churches in the Synod of Mid-America share their stories of caring for their low-income neighbors

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Owen Beard via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Nearly 15,000 people facing crippling medical debt will receive an early Christmas present this year thanks to congregations in the Synod of Mid-America and in neighboring states.

According to a news release from the synod, congregations in Kansas, Missouri and southwestern Illinois raised almost $58,000 as part of Project Jubilee during a coordinated effort to buy $13.3 million in medical debt held by low-income people in five states. Churches and mid councils partnered with RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit that to date has eliminated nearly $7.4 billion in medical debt held by low-income individuals.

The Rev. Catherine Neelly Burton, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Wichita, Kansas, said that two years ago the church’s mission team received an $80,000 bequest from the estate of Lois Fisher, a longtime member of the church’s mission team and a nurse who had worked in oncology and with HIV/AIDS patients receiving hospice care.

“She was passionate,” Neelly Burton said, “about serving people who society might not see.”

Grace Presbyterian Church had donated to RIP Medical Debt before and decided to give $5,000 of Fisher’s bequest as part of Project Jubilee.

“We were glad to give and be part of eliminating medical debt in Kansas and the surrounding area,” Neelly Burton said.

The Rev. Nancy Tuma, pastor of Ward Parkway Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri,  said the congregation had discussed food insecurity last fall. “When they began thinking about all of the reasons for this, including overwhelming medical debt, something clicked,” Tuma said.

“We are a congregation full of professionals who have not necessarily been shown all of the reasons that people are struggling with poverty, food and housing,” Tuma said. “This program and Tony De La Rosa [transitional executive for the Synod of Mid-America] truly helped give them greater understanding of one of the bigger issues.”

“We ended up contributing almost $7,000 to this,” Tuma said, “and people were so excited about this work.”

The Rev. Phyllis Stutzman, pastor of Emporia Presbyterian Church in Emporia, Kansas, said the church “has a longstanding tradition of community partnership” and “strives intentionally” to love God and its neighbors.

“Partnering with other Presbyterians through the synod’s Project Jubilee means that our efforts can have an even broader reach at a time when so many people are feeling the crunch of financial strain,” Stutzman said.

Sixteen families in the area received medical debt forgiveness through the coordinated effort. “This impact far exceeds what any one of us or any single congregation could do on our own,” Stutzman said.

As one Emporia Presbyterian Church member, Trustee Amanda Cunningham, put it, “The ability for EPC to offer funds to help relieve medical debt to people in our surrounding communities is a true blessing. There are so many people in need with limited to no resources that it is critical to find opportunities to help. What an honor it is to be a member of such a mission-driven congregation!”

According to the Synod of Mid-America, RIP Medical Debt used the money raised through Project Jubilee to purchase past due, unpayable medical debt on the open debt collection market at a substantial discount. The Project Jubilee campaign also opted to extend its reach to acquire medical debt portfolios in Kentucky and Tennessee, in addition to the participating congregations’ three home states.

The average debt relieved was about $900. Nearly 12,000 recipients in Kentucky saw nearly $10.5 million of their medical debt forgiven. Almost 900 people in Missouri had about $925,000 in debt wiped away, while nearly 1,300 Tennesseans saw debt forgiveness of about $891,000. In Kansas, 675 people saw about $886,000 removed, and in Illinois, 131 people were forgiven debts of about $118,000.

The 14,815 people benefitting from Project Jubilee are receiving letters this month informing them their medical debt has been forgiven in full. Medical debt abolishment is source-based and therefore cannot be requested. RIP purchases and abolishes medical debt for people who are four times or below the federal poverty level or have a medical debt that is 5% or more of their gross annual income.

About the Synod of Mid-America

The Synod of Mid-America consists of six presbyteries and 356 congregations with nearly 38,000 members. The synod’s offices are in Kansas City, Missouri. Learn more here.

About RIP Medical Debt

RIP Medical Debt is a national nonprofit whose purpose is to strengthen communities by abolishing financially burdensome medical debt. Founded in 2014 by two former debt collection executives, the organization has relieved nearly $7.4 billion in medical debt for nearly 4.3 million families in partnership with churches and other organizations. Its offices are in Long Island City, New York. Learn more here.

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