There are yellow envelopes in the mail this week to 11,108 St. Louis city and county families – envelopes that may contain an answer to prayers. Donors from the United Church of Christ came up with over $60,000 and the Deaconess Foundation donated $40,000. With that $100,000 donation, the church purchased $12.9 million in medical debt of families living at or below the poverty line through the RIP Medical Debt program – and wiped out their debt.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, senior pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ and UCC associate general minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries, described it as an act of loving thy neighbor – neighbors who are burdened with unpaid medical debt while living with incomes below the national poverty level in 78 local zip codes.
“Every letter closes with this phrase, ‘You may never enter the doors of one of our churches, but we are United Church of Christ and we love you, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey. You are welcome here, and most importantly, God loves you, and your debt has been forgiven,’” Blackmon said.
The church worked through RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based nonprofit organization started by former debt collectors. It uses donations to purchase unpaid medical debt of low-income families for pennies on the dollar to abolish the debt. On its site, RIP Medical Debt says it subsequently helps “recipients repair their credit reports – renewing their access to opportunities and resources that will allow them to rebuild and recover.”
“Not only will they receive this letter for their records, but the debt has also been removed from their credit reports,” Blackmon added.
Medical debt is the No. 1 reason for bankruptcy in the U.S.
Teara Norris, who spoke at a celebration at Christ the King UCC on Saturday, January 18, said she hopes she will receive a RIP Medical Debt letter. Frequent crises caused by the genetic blood disorder sickle cell anemia have forced her in and out of the hospital, in and out of jobs to make a living, and on and off Medicaid.
“I was working, but I went over the cap I was supposed to make, which caused them to cut off my Medicare and Social Security, which caused all the medical bills to pile up,” Norris said (Sickle cell disease is one of the impairments eligible for disability coverage through Medicare). “Every time I tried to go back to work, I would end up back in the hospital – and the cycle would just keep going.”
Looming as strong as Norris’ burden of medical debt is her aspiration to buy a home for herself and her family.
“Right now, we were trying to go through the process of buying a house, but that’s kind of hard with things on your credit,” Norris said.
Rev. Ginny Brown Daniels said 14 UCC churches along with the governing boards collectively donated more than $60,000 to free St. Louis families from oppressive medical bills. They are: Calvary, Overland; Christ, Maplewood; Christ the King, Florissant; Epiphany, St. Louis; Frieden’s Peace, New Melle; Grace, St. Louis; Peace, Webster Groves; Pilgrim, St. Louis; Samuel, Clayton; St. John’s Beloved Community, St. Louis; St. John’s Evangelical, Mehlville; St. John’s Capeln, Foristell; St. Lucas, Sunset Hills; St. Phillips, Chesterfield; and the St. Louis Association Council and the Conference Council of the Missouri Mid-South Conference.
“But we cannot stop there; we must speak out against the injustices of our healthcare system that created these inflated medical bills to begin with,” Brown Daniels said. “We have a problem in our society when people are oppressed because they dare to be healthy. We will use our voices to advocate with the poor in St. Louis city and county so that affordable healthcare is a right for all – not a privilege for a few of the wealthy.”
Rev. Rebecca Turner, pastor of Christ Church UCC in Maplewood, said when she heard about UCC churches in Chicago teaming with RIP Medical Debt, she texted Blackmon about it, but she was already on it.
“As Christian people who claim we walk in the way of Jesus, it is our joy and our duty to care for our neighbors,” Turner said. “I am willing to be taxed so that others have what they need. We pray that this action today is an inspiration, to our politicians, to our citizens, to other denominations, to people of faith in every faith to see the need that surrounds us – and to do something. ”
Rev. James Ross, pastor of Pilgrim UCC in St. Louis, said, “While this helps, it does not transform the system, and so our commitment now is to working with this body and with the people who benefit to create a world where people don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay their medical bills.”
Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation and former pastor at St. John’s (The Beloved Community) UCC, pointed out if Missouri had expanded Medicaid, this effort would not have been necessary.
“We made a $40,000 matching grant with a return of $12.9 million,” Wilson said. “Deaconess works to build power; to deploy well-being to the 650,000 children of this community, and because we know that 1 in 5 children in our community are poor; 2 in 5 black children; 2 in 5 brown children; and children in poverty are primarily in the care of their mothers.”
Wilson said Deaconess, along with Missouri Healthcare for All, Action St. Louis, Metropolitan Congregations United and Missouri Jobs with Justice, are seeking to put a ballot initiative on the November ballot to expand Medicaid in Missouri.
Rick Stevens, president of Christian Hospital, said BJC Healthcare is working to expand Medicaid in Missouri as well.
“Missouri has one of the lowest eligibility levels for Medicaid in the country,” Stevens said. “So, custodial parents are only eligible if they earn no more than 21 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $4,500 per year for a family of three. So if you are an adult, and a childless adult, there’s no minimum or maximum because you are not eligible.”
In October 2019, Chicago became the first city to get medical debt relief from UCC churches. The project will next go to UCC service areas in New England, then to Southern states and on to other locations through 2021.
“Please note that we only addressed those who are living at or below poverty – people who should not have to worry about the cost of healthcare anyway,” Blackmon said.
“And the majority of large buys we did – let’s just dispel a myth – the majority of the zip codes where we forgave $1 million and more were not zip codes of people of color. They were zip codes where the majority of people we helped were white. Why does that matter? Because the myth that expanding Medicaid is all about poor black and brown people is a lie from the pit of hell.”