Local churches pay off millions in medical debt

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – This is the season of giving, and local congregations have lifted a major financial burden off thousands of Oklahoma households.

Organizers say 20 United Church of Christ congregations were able to abolish $5.2 million in medical debt that was affecting families in Oklahoma and Kansas.

“Medical debt is something you don’t think will affect you personally,” said Lori Herpich, a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC, Lawrence, Kan. “My husband and I have experienced the crushing weight of medical debt that can lead to bankruptcy. The medical relief that UCC took part in is such important work. For some families to be able to feel that weight removed is indescribable and a true blessing.”

In all, more than 3,200 households across 76 counties in Kansas and 60 counties in Oklahoma will soon receive letters telling them their medical debt has been forgiven.

The letter will include the message, “You may never enter the doors of one of our churches, but we are the United Church of Christ and we love you. … Most importantly, you are beloved by God and your debt has been forgiven.” 

The church was able to raise $40,000, which was sent to RIP Medical Debt, which bought up debt for pennies on the dollar.

“Medical debt is just another expression of the unjust systems that are so deeply entrenched in our country,” said Edith Guffey, Kansas-Oklahoma Conference Minister. “We are a small Conference; 53 churches. We have a handful of larger congregations, but we are comprised primarily of small churches, a mixture of urban and rural, located in mask wearing and mask resisting communities. We did this important ministry together, across two states, because medical debt doesn’t care who you are or how you vote, or where you live. The only thing that matters is if you can pay. Love of neighbor is easy to say, but it doesn’t pay the bills. What a gift to our members to have the opportunity to be a part of making a tangible difference in the lives of thousands of families throughout Kansas and Oklahoma.”

The purchase wiped out $5,211,729 in medical debt.

In Oklahoma, the highest amounts of debt abolished were in the following areas:

  • Cleveland County (over $1.66 million, 1,258 households)
  • Oklahoma County (over $1.2 million, 802 households)
  • Garvin County (over $276,000, 128 households)
  • Pottawatomie County (over $260,000, 132 households)
  • Comanche County (over $56,000, 28 households.)

“One of the roles of the church is charity, but another equally important and different role is that of justice,” said the Rev. Chris Moore, pastor of Fellowship Congregational UCC, Tulsa. “During a pandemic it becomes even more important for the church to step in, disrupting unjust systems like ones that subject people to financial ruin simply because they have become sick or injured. If marshaling our resources for medical debt relief isn’t ‘being the church,’ I don’t know what is.”

Qualifying debtors were those earning less than two times the federal poverty level; in financial hardship, with out-of-pocket expenses that are 5 percent or more of their annual income; or facing insolvency with debts greater than assets.

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