D.C. area church members help cancel $9 million in medical debts

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Members of eight United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations in and around the District of Columbia have enough money to cancel $9 million in medical debt for people in four states. More than 7,800 families in Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and New Jersey will benefit from the fundraising drive, church officials said Tuesday.

Because debt collection agencies will accept deep discounts to retire mounting medical bills, the more than $65,000 donated by 92 UCC members will effectively wipe out over $9 million in overdue bills, UCC officials said.

Church officials noted the large amount of debt relief comes from a “1 to 100” ratio of donation-to-debt purchases. Long overdue medical bills are often sold to collection agencies at very steep discounts. The firms will accept pennies on the dollar to wipe the slate clean, providing quick profits for the bill collectors.

While the 7,800 households receiving funds will soon receive letters from the nonprofit group RIP Medical Debt that their bills are paid — in envelopes bearing a church logo — the church won’t know the names of specific beneficiaries. Each family will know which UCC congregations contributed to releasing their debt, however.

The Rev. Tim Tutt, senior minister of the Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Maryland, said the pandemic gave members an incentive to help others. 

“I’m very proud that this network of UCC churches came together during the pandemic to help alleviate medical debt for our neighbors,” he said in a statement. “At a time when people were isolated, trapped and afraid, we reached out with communal dollars to care for the vulnerable and at-risk.”

Donations came from Christ Congregational UCC, Silver Spring, Maryland; Cleveland Park Congregational UCC, Washington; First Congregational UCC, Washington; Hope UCC, Alexandria, Virginia; Little River UCC, Annandale, Virginia; Rock Spring Congregational UCC, Arlington, Virginia; UCC of Seneca Valley, Gaithersburg, Maryland; the Justice and Witness Committee of the Potomac Association in the UCC’s Central Atlantic Conference; and a Cleveland-based national UCC ministry, Justice and Local Church Ministries.

“Our church was excited to participate,” the Rev. Ellen Jennings, pastor of the Cleveland Park congregation, said in a statement. “This is such a huge justice issue for so many people, most especially those with lower incomes, who are not eligible for Medicaid or Medicare.”

Those qualifying for the debt relief were either earning less than two times the federal poverty level, suffering financial hardship, or facing insolvency with debts greater than assets.

“Jesus healed people,” Mr. Tutt said. “Helping to pay off medical debt for people in need is one way that we, as Christians, as UCC’ers, may follow in the Jesus way. Paying off medical debt helps ease financial, emotional, and mental pain. That’s healing.”

The United Church of Christ is noted for a progressive outlook among its more than 800,000 members. The group says it was the first mainline Protestant denomination to ordain a woman as a minister and the first to ordain an openly gay man to the pastorate.

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