Thousands of New England households struggling with medical bills will have a weight lifted from their shoulders courtesy of the United Church of Christ, which announced Sunday that it had bought up $26.2 million in medical debt.
A group of United Church of Christ congregations in southern New England led an effort to purchase and forgive the debt of 7,175 households in New England and New York, along with 12,144 first responders and medical workers across the country, the Rev. Jocelyn Gardner Spencer said in an online press conference.
“You may never enter the doors of one of our churches, but we are the United Church of Christ and we love you," said Spencer, a Connecticut minister reading a letter that will be sent to beneficiaries of the program. "No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And most importantly, you are beloved by God and your debt has been forgiven.”
Sixty-one churches in Massachusetts joined a total of 122 United Church of Christ congregations in southern New England, four church associations, and more than 100 individual households to raise more than $200,000 for RIP Medical Debt, a non-profit that buys and forgives the debt of those in need.
The church funds were used to purchase the debt of those making less than two times the federal poverty level, are financially burdened, and have out-of-pocket expenses that are 5 percent or more of their annual income, or who are facing insolvency with their debts worth more than their assets, according to a church spokeswoman.
All debtors in New England and New York who fit those categories and whose debt was available in August on the secondary market — where debt is sold for pennies on the dollar as hospitals try to recoup a share of the money owed them — were aided, the church said.
In New England and New York, $8.4 million in medical debt for 7,175 households was forgiven, according to the church. When all the available debt that qualified in those seven Northeast states was bought up, the rest of the funding went to first responders and medical workers nationwide that met the same requirements.
The Rev. Bill Ferguson, a pastor at Pilgrim Church of Duxbury, said his congregants were initially skeptical that they could relieve so much debt with a comparatively small sum.
“Their first response was very biblical: It was a bunch of ‘doubting Thomases,'" Ferguson joked at the press conference. “'That can’t be right; those figures must be wrong,'” he remembered them saying.
But after researching the issue, congregants quickly embraced the effort, Ferguson said.
“Their eyes were opened to the impact medical debt has on people and their families," he said, “and their generosity took over.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.