When the pastor of Christian Assembly Church in Eagle Rock, Calif., told his congregation members they could erase more than $5 million of medical debt for struggling families in and around Los Angeles, they rose to their feet in applause.
Church member Jean Kellett told the Los Angeles Times that she cried when she heard about the plans to pay off families’ debt over Christmas.
“Giving someone a tangible sense that I’m not alone, someone cares, someone sees me—that’s a win,” Pastor Tim Hughes told the Times.
Hughes’ church was one of several that formed a partnership with RIP Medical Debt over the holidays to serve individuals hit with unexpected medical bills in their communities. Through RIP Medical Debt, a secular nonprofit group, organizations and people can buy debt from unpaid healthcare bills from collection agencies at a steep discount and then erase it. Though the group works with concerned individuals, foundations, and other groups, co-founder Craig Antico said churches have increasingly chosen to get involved. In 2019 alone, more than 100 churches partnered with RIP Medical Debt to abolish about $500 million in unpaid bills—about half of all of the organization’s debt erasures.
“It’s pretty amazing, the outpouring of the people, the pastors, and parishioners,” Antico said.
A 2016 study found 42 percent of U.S. adults with health insurance said they took on an extra job or more work hours to pay medical bills. About 43 million people owe a total of $75 billion for overdue healthcare costs, according to RIP Medical Debt. Antico said in addition to financial struggles, medical debt can put a bad mark on a person’s credit report, making it difficult to buy a home or a car, get a job, or take out a loan, and about half of all collections involve healthcare bills. A couple of bills of a few thousand dollars each for a family making $45,000 a year could quickly put them into a financial spiral, he said, often because of high-deductible insurance plans.
Antico and Jerry Ashton, who were former collection agents, started RIP Medical Debt in 2014 to alleviate the burdens of poorer families. The organization is not faith-based, but it has found willing partners among many churches.
People who earn less than two times the federal poverty level for their state and family size can qualify for help if their out-of-pocket medical expenses constitute at least 5 percent of their annual income or they are facing insolvency. But the organization doesn’t work directly with patients; it partners with others and uses donations to purchase debt that has gone to collection agencies for a penny on the dollar.
In the case of Christian Assembly Church, the leaders created a map of neighborhoods where 15 or more families from their congregation lived. Then they worked with RIP Medical Debt to pay off $5.3 million of debt for qualified families in those 28 LA neighborhoods. In total, they helped 5,555 households.
Antico emphasized that while RIP Medical Debt has helped many people, it doesn’t address the root of the problem.
“It resolves problems and helps people get out of hardship … but it doesn’t solve the problem of the high costs, and it doesn’t solve the problem of access to care,” he said. “What we’re doing is not the solution to it; it’s just helping the people who are being harmed.”
Antico described sudden medical costs as a “shock to the system” that most people aren’t prepared to handle. Many families are underinsured, and they need to learn how their health insurance policy works, he said. Few people understand how to navigate deductibles, co-pays, and health savings accounts.
But for now, churches are doing their part to lighten the burden.
“Although RIP isn’t solving the problem, we are definitely helping stop hardship, and that’s what our goal is,” Antico said. “And that’s why churches are helping—because they realize they can.”