Unbeknownst to them, low-income people, saddled with medical debt, across 31 Missouri counties are about to find out their burden has been lifted.
As the result of a partnership between The Crossing church in Columbia and nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, qualifying Missourians are about to have $43 million in medical debt erased.
The debt will be purchased for roughly a penny per dollar from various collection agencies across the state, with $430,000 the church raised in just 10 days from donations, Pastor Keith Simon said Monday. A spokesperson for the church said it averages 3,000 adults each Sunday.
It’s not clear yet how many people will benefit from the church’s good works, but they will get the news sometime in the next month.
After planning with The Crossing’s executive team, Simon introduced the idea to the congregation on Aug. 25. He said the goal was to remind the community of the church’s commitment to satisfying both physical and spiritual needs. The church related the idea to the ancient celebration of Jubilee, based on the forgiveness of personal, property and land debts, according to the church’s website.
“We had no idea it was going to be as successful as it was,” he said.
Crossing Twenties Director Patrick Miller said the initial goal was more modest.
“We realized with $200,000 we could pay off most of the medical debt in mid-Missouri. Now that was kind of a long shot,” he said. “When we first thought of it, I thought maybe we’ll be able to pay $10,000 or even $20,000, so we were shocked.”
Medical debt relief has been a growing trend in recent years. Since 2018, more than a dozen churches across the country have partnered with RIP Medical Debt, and the organization was showcased on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” in 2016.
According to its website, since RIP Medical Debt began in 2014 as a nonprofit it has relieved more than $700 million in medical debt. The agency is able to purchase debt of people with income less than twice the federal poverty level, which varies by state and family size, and whose debt exceeds 5% of their annual income. This debt is resold cheaply to debt collection agencies because the debtors are deemed “unlikely” to pay.
RIP Medical Debt can target the debt portfolios of geographic regions, and preference veterans’ debt but not specific people, their director of development told USA Today. This means that religious affiliation plays no role in who benefits from the church’s donation.
According to a study from the Urban Institute, more than 30% of non-elderly adults in Missouri had medical debt in 2015, placing the state at seventh in the nation for greatest debt burden. In 2017, the Census Bureau found that 9% of Missourians lacked health insurance.
The numbers signify a serious threat to health care institutions in rural Missouri, which have to provide care regardless of patients’ ability to pay.
Six hospitals in rural Missouri have been closed in the last five years, including three between 2018 and 2019, according to previous Missourian reporting.
According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Biennial report, of the 74 rural hospitals in Missouri, 36 have 25 beds or fewer. And 43 counties have less than one hospital bed per 1,000 residents.
Facing bankruptcy, these institutions sometimes take their former patients to court when payments are neglected. Attorney Daniel T. Moore of Poplar Bluff frequently represents these clients.
Moore said in southeast Missouri, 70-85% of bankruptcies are filed due to medical debt, primarily by uninsured patients and by patients whose insurance companies have additional contracts with specific hospitals and healthcare providers. Moore said a lot of debt arises because insurance providers have contracts that supersede the deductibles their patients expect to pay.
“You’re really not getting the coverage you think you are,” he said.
“Hospitals are entitled to make a profit... but the question becomes if their charges are reasonable,” he said.
Moore said he personally represented a client with an itemized hospital bill that charged $15 for an aspirin, and $300 for an IV push, separate from the drugs being administered by the push. Hospitals typically have access to bulk wholesale pricing for these common over-the-counter drugs and supplies.
Moore said people assume that since they can’t pay their medical debt, they also can’t afford a lawyer, and, representing themselves, they’re often pressured into a consent judgment. Moore said these judgments demand the entire debt after a missed payment, and that any real estate a person owns may be owed at that time.
The Crossing’s Pastor Simon said in the next month, the church will work with RIP Medical Debt to notify the people whose debt is being forgiven.
Simon said he didn’t know if The Crossing would continue to work with RIP Medical Debt.
“This was one initiative,” he said.
Miller said: “We don’t wanna be narrowly focused on one thing. We want to help people in as many ways as God calls us to, as many ways as we can imagine.”
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.