Suffocating debt relieved by churches organizing debt buy-back through RIP Medical Debt
by John C. Williams for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service
One in 10 American adults owes significant medical debt, and that debt causes two-thirds of all bankruptcies. To the Rev. Stacy Cavanaugh of Union Presbyterian Church in Monroe, Wisconsin, that wasn’t acceptable.
Giving — and more specifically, generosity — ties into many churches’ connection to Matthew 25, Rev. Cavanaugh said.
She helps organize the Generosity Task Force for the John Knox Presbytery in Wisconsin and has been a central figure in coordinating larger-scale giving, with retiring medical debt a priority.
“In the larger context of Matthew 25, the main point of this parable is clear: our readiness for Jesus’ return is determined by our stewardship of the resources that he has given us,” she said. “The servant who received one talent was not condemned for failing to reach the five-talent goal; he was condemned because he did nothing with what he was given.
“The gifts we receive from God include skills, abilities, family connections, social positions, education, experiences and more. The point of the parable is that we are to use whatever we have been given for God’s purposes,” she said.
Utilizing the Presbyterian Foundation’s online giving portal made it simple, secure and convenient for donors to give, she noted.
“When there is a specific purpose (for the giving campaign), it is much easier to encourage people to be generous. They aren’t as excited about giving to overhead costs, but they are often very eager to participate in something like RIP Medical Debt that they see as helping their neighbors directly,” Rev. Cavanaugh said.
About the program
RIP Medical Debt allows donors and organizations to erase the debt of Americans whose lives have been destroyed by unjust medical debt. RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by two former collections industry executives, Craig Antico and Jerry Ashton. The group rose to national prominence after facilitating the erasure of $15 million in medical debt for only $60,000.
In less than 10 years, RIP Medical Debt has erased over $8 billion in medical debt by buying it down for pennies on the dollar. They estimate a $100 donation relieves $10,000 in medical debt.
Terry McGinley chairs the Generosity Task Force for John Knox Presbytery. “The matching of Giving Tuesday and RIP Medical Debt turned out to be a perfect one,” he said. “Doing this ministry was an idea that grew out of the life of one of our congregations.
“It promised an incredible bang for the buck. It allowed the presbytery to step into online giving. And, when we asked RIP Medical Debt to apply our donation to those who needed it most, this ministry meshed seamlessly with John Knox’s Matthew 25 status,” McGinley said.
The Rev. Rachel R. Rosendahl, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Winona, Minnesota, also found medical debt strangling some in her rural community.
After learning about RIP Medical Debt in 2020, five churches in her rural community joined forces: Grace Presbyterian, First Congregational, Cedar Valley Lutheran, Lutheran Campus Center, and Central Lutheran.
The clergy leaders agreed that tackling the challenge together, across denominational lines, was a glimpse of something much bigger that could, in fact, end up making a huge difference.
“The thing I think we all need to understand is that there is no one thing that is going to have such a big impact that it changes the whole world — outside of Jesus Christ, of course,” Rosendahl said. “But there are acts of grace. Our Matthew 25 pledge to eradicate systemic poverty is only one small part of why we, who follow Christ, endeavor to take on projects such as RIP Medical Debt.”
The Winona campaign in 2020 raised about $15,000 — which RIP Medical Debt used to buy back more than $2 million in medical debt owed by about 1,000 families in that local community.
They aren’t alone. In late 2022, 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.
And Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, along with other Mid-Kentucky Presbytery churches, are raising funds for RIP Medical Debt. Steve Makela, who serves in leadership roles for both the presbytery and Highland, says the effort is consistent with the church’s and presbytery’s desire to “further demonstrate our concern for the broad needs of those individuals in our communities.” Makela expects these efforts will result in over $1 million in medical debt being erased shortly after the campaign concludes June 30, with a focus on qualifying individuals and families throughout Central Kentucky.
Look to your local churches for opportunities to join the generosity, or to organize help to buy down medical debt.
- 23 million people in the United States (nearly 1 in 10 adults) owe significant medical debt. A major survey suggests people in the U.S. owe at least $195 billion in medical debt. Approximately 16 million people (6% of adults) in the U.S. owe more than $1,000 in medical debt and 3 million people (1% of adults) owe medical debt of more than $10,000.
- People ages 35-49 (11%) and 50-64 (12%) are more likely than other adults to report medical debt. They have greater health needs than younger people on average and aren’t yet old enough to qualify for Medicare coverage, which may protect them from high costs.
- Larger shares of people in poor health (21%) and living with a disability (15%) report medical debt. People in these groups are more likely to need and receive care than people in better health and without disabilities.
- Among racial and ethnic groups, a larger share of Black adults (16%) report having medical debt compared to white (9%), Hispanic (9%), and Asian American (4%) adults.
John C. Williams is a veteran writer living in coastal South Carolina and a member of Sea Island Presbyterian Church in Beaufort, South Carolina.
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