Around the U.S., churches are responding to the concerning rise in unpaid medical debt, and some United Methodist Churches in Indiana are joining this trend.

St. Andrew United Methodist Church in West Lafayette recently partnered with RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit organization that purchases oppressive medical debt owed by individuals living in or near the poverty line and are unable to pay it off.

In the coming days, 4,220 recipients in Carroll, Clinton, Montgomery, White, and Tippecanoe Counties will receive a letter that their debt (a combined total of $5,990,435.42) has been forgiven.

Dick Nelson, a faithful member of the church, encouraged the congregation to join the debt elimination effort, following a discussion during his Christian Issues Sunday school class which brought about the issue of overwhelming medical debts owed by families in the surrounding community.

Dick had read an article in Faithlink magazine about a Florida church that eradicated over $10 million in medical debt for its community. And when Dick learned that donors can earn a tax credit for their donations, he encouraged church members to give before 2019 ended.

On his 90th birthday, he pledged money towards eliminating the debt and invited the church to form a committee to join him in this effort. Soon thereafter, the church raised the minimum requirement to begin the debt elimination process.

“Nobody else in the group seemed quite as taken with [the issue] as I was. So I began exploring it and sending out information to people within the church. The organization wanted a minimum of $15,000,” he said.

But how does $15,000 equate to almost $6 million?

Dick said that when a person or family cannot afford to pay a hospital bill, that debt is then sent to a debt collection agency. Unpaid debts remain in the system for a long period of time, untouched.

“Eventually, the bill is written off, and there’s just this outstanding amount of money that, by now, has been reduced considerably, to [typically] $1 out of $100.”

In the case of St. Andrew UMC: “We learned the debt was about a quarter of a dollar out of a hundred. That’s how we went from $15,000 to almost $6 million.”

The church has been receiving letters from recipients across the state sharing their appreciation for this unexpected gift. One letter brought tears to Dick’s eyes as he read. It was from a couple in Connecticut who had received medical aid at an Indiana hospital. The wife had given birth to their daughter in critical condition. The baby suffered from a brain aneurysm and consequently endured severe disabilities.

In the letter, the couple wrote, “[Our daughter] was only given a few weeks to live, but this coming April she turns 14…We are completely astonished and grateful that your congregation would do such an amazing good will toward us. We had no idea that [the debt] was even still outstanding as it was from 2006.”

They continued, “We are still in a little bit of shock, but we truly appreciate everything you’ve done, gratefully. Once again, thank you very much.”

Dick said, “It just strikes me as so fantastic. And I’m part of this!”

When asked about the impact debt elimination will have on the community, St. Andrews Associate Pastor, Rev. Annetra Jones said, “It affirms my faith in knowing the church is outward focused and working to ease the burdens of injustice that our current medical system imposes upon poor people in our community.”

Rev. Jones added, “Medical debt is one of the primary reasons Americans file for bankruptcy, and we are honored to join the growing number of churches who are responding to this crisis by partnering with RIP Medical Debt.”

The rise in medical debt is one of the growing social concerns across the U.S., and the numbers are staggering. In an article released last year by CNBC, it showed that nearly 140 million Americans have dealt with a form of financial hardship due to medical costs, and that medical bills have become one of the main reasons people consider taking money out of their retirement savings or filing for bankruptcy (66.5%).

Last year, Acton United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, who also partnered with RIP Medical Debt, exceeded its goal to raise $15,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas to help cover $2 million in outstanding medical bills for people in Central Indiana.

But while churches are working to pay off the debt, some church members are working to change unjust policies that propagate the medical debt issue.

In 2019, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, a United Methodist-affiliated hospital system in Tennessee, chose to change its policies for dealing with debtors, which included seeking legal council to deal with unpaid medical bills and going as far as targeting its own employees. After receiving complaints that the hospital system was not following the United Methodist Social Principles, the company announced it would increase its minimum wage for a period of time and no longer pursue employees for unpaid debt.

While the debt elimination program is designed to help those that are struggling to pay off their dues, the focus of local churches like St. Andrew and Acton is to care for the lives in the community. For members like Dick, it means being part of something more meaningful.

Dick’s aunt battled severe diabetes for many years. “Eventually she had an amputation that took away half of her leg and ultimately died of diabetes. But right now, today, if somebody were suffering through this and couldn’t pay their bill, in many cases, they wouldn’t go back to the doctor or the hospital.“

Rev. Jones said, “We are grateful for Dick’s Christian witness and conviction to be the Church, to become involved in the lives of those in vulnerable communities who may never enter through our church doors.”

She continued, “St. Andrew UMC now has a RIP Medical Debt committee that will continue to raise funds to eliminate debt throughout Indiana in 2020 and beyond. So far, there is one donor who has committed to giving a recurring donation.”

The church is drafting a letter as a response to beneficiaries who contact them to learn more about the good deed. It contains the following:

By using our resources to pay off unpaid medical debt in our community and beyond, we are living into our mission statement of St. Andrew UMC, an open community growing in the ways of Jesus, sent out daily to share the healing love of God and partnering with RIP enables us to make a much larger impact than assisting individuals alone. The identities of the beneficiaries of our donations to RIP Medical Debt are unknown to us. RIP does all the processing in support of its goal of abolishing accumulated debt for families nationwide.