Stethoscope and dollar sign on gray background

A recent article by Kaiser Health News noted that churches in Kansas, Maryland, Illinois, Virginia and Texas have worked with the nonprofit RIP Medical Debt to eliminate $34.4 million of medical debt for people in their respective states.

Now, churches in Pennsylvania are getting involved. Two churches in Delaware County — Bethany Evangelical Presbyterian Church and Manoa Community Church — are the first two in the state to spearhead a local campaign aimed at eliminating  the medical debt of people in Delaware County.

The Rev. Paul Bammel, who became the pastor at Bethany Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Havertown in January, was previously with Pathway Church, outside Wichita, Kansas, which wiped away $2.2 million in medical debt for 1,600 people.

He brought that same thought process to his new charge.

“I thought ‘I wonder if there’s any medical debt in Delaware County.’ ” he said by phone.

It turns out there is more than $500,000 in uncollectable medical debt in the county. He also was told the churches need to raise at least $15,000 to localize the campaign. Because the average payoff is 100:1, that potentially could eliminate about $1.5 million in medical debt in Delaware County and  begin to chip away at the more than $15 million in medical debt in Philadelphia, Bammel said.

“Man this would be really cool if the church in Delaware County — what I mean by that is all the churches — kind of team up,” Bammel said. “Then people in our own community can see the churches coming together, unifying around the purpose of setting people free from their medical debt.”

The Rev. Stefan Bomberger, pastor at Manoa Community, previously served at Riverside Church in North Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  That church is part of Church United, an amalgam of different churches that choose a common initiative on which to collaborate each year. He believes churches in Delaware County could work together as well to meet peoples’ needs.

Scott Patton, RIP’s director of development, said it’s no secret that medical costs in the United States are sky-high.

“The average emergency room bill is $12,000,” Patton said, “and the average cost of cancer, even with insurance, is $150,000. Middle-class Americans can easily wrack up bills that they, mathematically, will not be able to pay.”

Bills hard to collect

Those bills are difficult to collect so  in some cases, the care provider will write off the vast majority of the bill and sell it to a debt buyer, who may choose to try to collect it or sell it on the secondary market.

Collection agencies may receive a few payments but often cannot collect more. The uncollected debt is then sold to another buyer.

This uncollectable debt ends up on  the secondary debt market where RIP Medical Debt functions as a buyer.

 The difference, Patton said, is that RIP is not in the business of collecting from debtors.

“We’re there to stop the cycle,” Patton said. “Debt sellers have no qualms about selling to us because they’re just trying to recover some of their lost cost. When we buy it, we’re not trying to collect it, we are putting an end to the process.”

He explained that the debt has a chain of title and therefore, agencies cannot continue to demand payments from people “because we own the debt.”

RIP Medical Debt also collects donations that are used for the United States at large rather than a specific locale.

Patton said the organization has received a great deal of attention through the media “and particularly  the faith-based media. This is something churches realize they can do. Even churches that don’t have large budgets can make a substantial impact for their communities provided there is enough medical debt in their community.”

Eligibility requirements

To be eligible, a debtor must be earning less than twice the federal level of poverty, which is listed at $48,678 for a family of four, must have fewer assets than the debt they owe and  typically are paying more than 5% of their income for medical expenses.

If there is not enough medical debt in a  particular locale, Patton said, “we’ll expand a radius” to meet the criteria.

Therefore, once Delaware County churches reach the financial threshold, the campaign is likely to include areas beyond the county.

According to RIP Medical Debt, Pennsylvania’s medical debt totals $1.923 billion.

Patton noted that it’s not just churches that are involved. Individuals, corporations and various other organizations have raised funds that RIP Medical Debt has used to retire debt.

Bammel sees the program as a way to help people even if it doesn’t bring them into the church.

“This is not a stunt to make Bethany look better,” Bammel said, “but the church has a role to play.

“We’re really just excited to, in the name of Jesus, set some people free from debts. This is kind of a way to pay it forward and make an impact in our community.”