Real Life-Savers: Chicago-Area Churches Band Together to Wipe Out More Than $5 Million in Medical Debt for Thousands of Families

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Close to 6,000 families in the Chicago area will be getting a life-changing gift just in time for the holidays: the clearing of their medical debts.

A group of churches serving the Cook County community has banded together to buy and then forgive the medical debt of 5,888 families in need, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

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Families receiving the gift will find out in the coming days when bright yellow envelopes with “RIP Medical Debt” written on them appear in their mailbox, the Tribune explains.

Statistics show such a gift can be life-altering.

As CNBC reported earlier this year, a study by the American Journal of Public Health found that two-thirds of all bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to medical expenses—either the cost of actual care or the impact of time spent out of work.

“People don’t know that they’re going to receive this,” one of the organizers of the debt forgiveness effort, the Rev. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity Church, told the Tribune. “And it’s my imagination that there will be 5,888 families in Cook County that will be shouting and thanking God that their debt has been forgiven.”

And the only criteria for the gift? That a family be in need of having the debt paid off. Families that were helped did not need to be a member of a particular church, or even a faith.

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“We see Cook County as our parish,” Moss said. “So you will receive debt forgiveness whether you are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, humanist, secular, agnostic, atheist, whether you’re black or you’re white. The only criteria that we laid out is that we want to make sure the most vulnerable are in line. Or as Scripture says, ‘The last shall be first.’”

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Moss got involved with the mission after being contacted by the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a leader in the United Church of Christ, of which Trinity is part.

She got the idea after learning of a nonprofit organization called RIP Medical Debt. She reached out to Moss about getting a group of clergy together to partner with the nonprofit to wipe out the debt of needy families, the Tribune reports.

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The group targeted Cook County specifically because so many live below the poverty line.

Beginning this past summer, the participating churches took up collections at their churches to raise the money needed. Because bad debt is often written off by creditors, it can be purchased for just pennies on the dollar.

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For just $38,000, the church group was able to buy—and then forgive—more than $5.3 million in debt, Blackmon told the Tribune.

But while such debt may seem like pennies to some major creditor firm, being burdened with such debt can exact a high price to the people owing it.

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As Blackmon explained to the Tribune:

Those companies then ding the credit of an individual who owes, which has a profound effect on their ability to qualify for a mortgage or rent, or affected someone’s ability to get a job that requires good credit, Blackmon said.

The average debt for local families of $907 cost less than $2 to eliminate through RIP Medical Debt, she said. That’s part of why this cause has been so important to her, as negotiating away debt was only available to insiders and large-scale debt purchasers prior to the founding about five years ago of RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based nonprofit.

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“The feel-good story is a great thing, but if you have written off this debt anyway, there are practical implications to your life in having it eliminated,” Blackmon said.

Hallelujah.

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