Forgive them their debts

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 23rd of January, 2020. We’re so glad you’ve joined us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

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Well, next up today, medical debt. Lots of it. 

Americans spent more than $3 trillion on healthcare in 2016. Much of that is covered by insurance, but some ends up as debt that families struggle to pay. 

Some estimates put the total amount of unpaid medical bills at $80 billion. That can have dire financial consequences. Half a million Americans file for bankruptcy every year because they cannot pay their medical bills.

EICHER: In September, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders teased a plan for taxpayers to pay off part of that debt. But some churches aren’t waiting for politicians to ride to the rescue. They’re taking matters into their own hands. WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen reports.

JERRY MCQUAY: I first heard about, uh, a church…in the Dallas area and they gave a substantial amount of money to retire medical debt in the Dallas area. 

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Jerry McQuay is the pastor of Christian Life Center in Tinley Park, Illinois. 

MCQUAY: And I thought that’s, that’s kinda weird for a church to do something like that.

But McQuay kept hearing about other churches doing the same thing. He wanted to know more about how this worked, so he contacted the organization these churches had partnered with. It’s called RIP Medical Debt.

MCQUAY: It’s a nonprofit organization…they, uh, buy for a penny on the dollar, basically, uh, medical debts that have been turned over to collections.

Craig Antico is one of the organization’s founders. He used to be a debt collector, so he knows how the process works.

ANTICO: You go to the hospital and you get a bill and you can’t pay it. Then it goes to a collection company… Then it gets progressively more assertive to the point where if you don’t pay, they could threaten to sue you and bring you to court.

Sometimes, if you can’t pay the debt, it gets sold to another collector for a fraction of the original bill. And that agency can then come after you for the full amount. That’s where RIP Medical Debt comes in. The organization uses donations to buy up batches of medical debt. Ten dollars can buy about $1,000 of debt. But instead of collecting on it, the group forgives it.

ANTICO: In our contract we state that once we buy this debt, we will not collect on it… We are unable to resell it and we’re unable to collect on it and that right there is the definition of abolishment. 

Any person or group can donate and abolish debt. The organization uses an algorithm to identify the people who need help the most—if they make less than two times the national poverty level or if their income is less than their assets.

Donors can’t target a specific person for debt forgiveness. But they can request their donation go toward a certain geographic region or demographic. Antico says more and more churches are forgiving debt in their communities.

ANTICO: It started in Texas. A church…Covenant Church heard about it…and decided for…an Easter service that they were going to forgive $10 million dollars of debt. And we were like, Holy cow. That was our, one of our biggest donations. And it was our first donation of a church. 

Since then, the number of church-run campaigns has skyrocketed. Antico says they accounted for half of all the debt abolished in 2019.

Carlton McCarthy is the chief financial officer at McQuay’s church in Tinley Park. When he does financial coaching sessions for church members, medical debt is one of the biggest sources of trouble.

MCCARTHY: Cause you go to the emergency room and you don’t have a price list of what the, of, of the services that you’re receiving. 

McCarthy says the church chose to help with medical debt because it’s different than credit card debt or student loans.

MCCARTHY: It happens all of a sudden and you can’t control the type of expense either or the amount of the expense. It’s not like they went out and made a bad purchase or anything like that.

The Tinley Park church banded together with several others in the Chicago area. McQuay says, collectively, they took in $40,000 in donations for this campaign. That enabled them to forgive over $4 million in medical debt.

MCQUAY: We were able to completely wipe out the debt of about 20 different communities in the south suburbs.

After forgiving the debt, the organization sends out letters to each recipient telling them their debt has been paid in full: a “no strings attached gift.” The church doesn’t know who the recipients are. But the yellow envelopes include the church’s contact information, so the recipients know who forgave their debt.

And hopefully it points them to the one who forgives our ultimate debt.

One pastor from Kansas explained it this way to Wichita news source KWCH.

TODD CARTER: The last words that Jesus says before he dies on the cross is, ‘It is finished.’ And literally what that means is ‘paid in full.’ And to me that was just a great lead in to be able to pay in full somebody else’s debt.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Tinley Park, Illinois.

(Photo/Creative Commons, Flickr)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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