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St. Louis Congregations Use Donations To Erase $12.9 Million In Medical Debt

The Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ The King United Church of Christ, at a press conference Saturday, Jan. 19.
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ and other church leaders announced that congregations were buying the debt of families in 78 St. Louis-area ZIP codes.

More than 11,000 St. Louis-area families will learn this week that their medical debt has been paid, thanks to donations from local churches.

United Church of Christ congregations and the Deaconess Foundation announced Saturday they had purchased $12.9 million in medical debt for a fraction of the cost. They worked with the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, which used the donations to purchase the debt from collectors.

Church leaders used Saturday’s announcement at Christ the King Church in Black Jack to make the argument that medical debt is a symptom of a system that devalues poor people and people of color — and call for political action.

“We hope this will be a shot of hope into our region, a shot of hope into our neighborhoods; we hope it will challenge and spur other denominations and other churches,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King.

When bills go unpaid, hospitals sell that “bad debt” to collectors for much less. Donations to the RIP Medical Debt are used to buy the debt from the collectors.

The families all live below the federal poverty line. UCC congregations don’t know who receives the debt forgiveness, only the neighborhoods where the families live.

Blackmon said the donations bought out debt for families in 78 ZIP codes in the St. Louis region.

Community leaders intentionally announced the debt payments the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, said Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation. Church leaders wanted to tie conversations about medical debt to King’s work on behalf of those in poverty, he said.

“It’s easier to build monuments than to make a better world,” Wilson said, quoting a poem about King by writer Carl Wendell Hines Jr. “Building monuments is easy, but so is writing checks.”

Wilson and other community leaders — including pastors from other UCC churches, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay of University City and Christian Hospital President Rick Stevens — also used the announcement to encourage support for a ballot initiative that seeks to expand Missouri’s Medicaid program.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also,” Wilson said, quoting Matthew 6:21. “If their heart went there, it would be easier to get their bodies there as well.”

If Missouri had expanded its Medicaid program, there wouldn’t be nearly as much debt to forgiven, Blackmon said.

“We hope it will motivate this community to say enough is enough,” she said. “If we can take $105,000 and eliminate $12.9 million in debt, we should be holding our elected officials responsible for coming up with solutions and not excuses.”

One in five families have problems paying their medical bills, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A recent poll from NPR, the T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found 26% of respondents said health care expenses were a serious burden.

Teara Norris is one of those people. Treatment for sickle cell anemia has left her $10,000 in debt, and she’s considering filing for medical bankruptcy. She hopes to receive a yellow envelope from RIP Medical Debt next week.

“I don’t think people understand how big having good credit is,” she said, saying the medical bills had wrecked her credit score. “If that could change possibly, that’s something I wouldn’t have to worry about.”

Norris said the debt has prevented her from furthering her education. If it were paid off, she could focus on creating a better life for her two sons.

“I would be able to go ahead and buy a home for my family, so my children could have a good, stable home to grow up in,” she said.

United Church of Christ congregations in Illinois last year bought $5.3 million in debt to relieve families in Chicago using a similar model. Blackmon said she plans to work with congregations in the Northeast and Deep South on medical debt-forgiveness campaigns.

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.