We commend heartily the leadership of the United Church of Christ, 14 St. Louis churches, and the Deaconess Foundation in raising the money to abolish $12.9 million in medical debt for 11,108 St. Louis families in 78 Zip codes — and for the messages they sent in announcing their philanthropy.
It is, to begin with, strategic and transformative philanthropy. Church bodies raised more than $60,000, which was matched by $40,000 from the Deaconess Foundation. Working with the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, the group bought medical debt owed by families living at or below the poverty line at pennies on the dollar. There is a national movement to take advantage of the abundance of bad medical debt purchased by debt collectors, and we commend them for joining this national movement of circumventing predatory debt collection with compassionate philanthropy.
But potentially just as transformative was the way this compassionate philanthropy was announced: by calling attention to — and challenging the public to address — the underlying systemic issues. After all, why are so many low-income families being crushed by medical debt?
Rev. Traci Blackmon, who hosted the announcement at Christ the King UCC, was unflinching in identifying the underlying politics in this crucial election year. She pointed out that under Governor Mike Parson, 100,000 low-income Missouri families have been dropped from Medicaid. Most states — even neighboring Kansas — are expanding Medicaid because it is both humane and makes financial sense. Under the Affordable Care Act — which somehow remains the law of the land after a decade of Republican attacks — the federal government pays for 90 percent of Medicaid expansion. Yet Missouri, under Parson, is contracting Medicaid.
Like the U.S. president, the Missouri Governor is up for re-election in 2020. Also, it is likely that Missouri voters in November, as Blackmon noted, will encounter a ballot amendment enabling them to sidestep Parson and the equally shortsighted Missouri Legislature and vote to expand Medicaid by direct voter initiative.
“I am going to unashamedly ask that you vote,” thundered Blackmon, who is both senior pastor of Christ the King and associate general minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries for the national UCC. “Whether you put them in office by voting or by not voting at all, you are responsible. If you sit in here and clap and you didn’t vote, I’m coming for you.”
Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, underscored the hard edge of this philanthropy, coming as it did as St. Louis and the nation were entering the MLK Holiday weekend on Saturday, January 18. Wilson pointed out that Dr. King — that quintessential man of action — is being misrepresented by the focus on community service in his name. “We need less service,” Wilson said. “We need more action.” To all of this, we say, “Amen — and let’s go.”