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Bloomington-Normal churches join a campaign to erase medical debt

When a North Carolina church's debt jubilee service went viral back in April, Bloomington-based pastor Brian Hastings saw the headlines online and was intrigued — but he didn't immediately watch the video or read the corresponding articles and posts about it.

The 23-second clip that had captured the internet's attention showed congregants of Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem setting medical bills on fire — a symbol of what those church members had accomplished via fundraising alongside a nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt.

Church members had crowd-sourced just over $15,000, and by donating it to RIP Medical Debt the money paid off some $3 million in medical debt for more than 3,300 families in the area.

"Like a week later, I was in a conversation with someone who was newer to our church and had told a story about that," Hastings told WGLT in an interview. "(It was) like, 'That's what church should be doing. I was like, 'Yeah. You're right.'"

Curiosity piqued, Hastings said he began to do more research into the North Carolina church's feat, wondering if something similar could be in the McLean County area — or if his church, First Baptist, could get involved.

First Baptist Church Bloomington

"I found there was already a campaign existing for central Illinois," Hastings said. "But it was basically all of the counties around McLean, but not including McLean County. So I wrote into RIP Medical Debt ... to get in touch with the and say, 'Hey is there any way we could partner up, if McLean County could be included in all of this?'"

Thanks to that inquiry, McLean County is now one of 44 others across downstate Illinois included in a campaign that's now led by First Baptist and its original founder, Vermillion County-based medical bill navigator Sunni Patterson.

"In one sense, we're not doing anything special other than try to call attention to it and say, 'Hey, we could do so much more if we work together,'" Hastings said.

Turning tens of thousands of dollars into millions of dollars in debt forgiveness sounds like a miracle — or like a scam, Hastings acknowledged.

A spokesperson for RIP Medical Debt says the organization is accustomed to that reaction.

'A lot of people are like, 'There's no way this is true''

"I often say there's not a huge precedent in this country for good news just showing up in the mail," RIP Medical Debt communications vice president Daniel Lempert told WGLT. "We definitely have people who don't believe it at first."

The circa-2014 nonprofit and its unique model has been the subject of multiple national news articles and stories since its inception. Lempert said it started nearly 10 years ago as the brainchild of two, longtime medical-debt collectors.

"They basically realized that you could sort of take the for-profit debt market and turn it on its head pretty simply," he said. "Instead of acquiring medical debts to make money off of them, you can use donor funds to purchase medical debts and then abolish them."

RIP Medical Debt says on its website that it "has raised enough money to abolish over $9 billion of medical debt for more than 6 million families" — what Lempert says is a "testament to the model."

"It really took just one creative twist of what was — and is — a for-profit model," he said. "But it really has lent itself to a very effective philanthropic model."

Lempert says individuals can donate directly to RIP Medical Debt, but often the organization works alongside others via campaigns to raise a target dollar amount. That's how First Baptist Church in Bloomington got involved, Hastings said: A Danville woman, Sunni Patterson, had already started a fundraising campaign.

"I saw in the media, 'RIP Medical Debt is wiping out medical debt,'" Patterson said in an interview. "I thought, 'Well how does this work?'"

Patterson describes her work as a medical bill navigator as helping people unpack — and resolve — issues they may be having with their insurance. Prior to that, she'd worked as a senior claims analyst for "one of the big insurance carriers."

"I talked to people all the time, throughout just my regular workday, who are just financially strapped because of their medical bills," she said. "I have a lot of senior citizens in my accounts portfolio, so a lot of times I hear, 'I either have to eat or I pay this bill.'"

A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in cooperation with NPR in 2022found that over 40% of Americans have some sort of medical debt and around 25% reported being unable to pay those bills.

Patterson said because she's based in Danville, she'd originally reached out to RIP Medical Debt with the intention of doing a Vermilion County-focused campaign, but the nonprofit's model necessitated including more counties, since the amount of debt in Vermilion County alone didn't meet a certain threshold.

With the addition of McLean County after Hastings' inquiry, there are 44 counties included in the campaign. If the fundraiser's target is met, then RIP Medical Debt will buy up medical debt from those counties and pay off those that are eligible.

There are caveats to eligibility. Lapsed medical debt will only be paid for those who earn 400% or below the federal poverty level in income, or those whose debt is 5% or more of their gross annual income, spokesperson Daniel Lempert said.

"We basically purchase financial information to confirm who in the cohort qualifies — meets one of our two criteria — and then we will pay a market rate for those debts and acquire them," Lempert said. "Then send letters to individuals letting them know their debts have been abolished. This work is source-based, so no one can request medical debt relief; it really based on who meets our criteria and whose debts we're able to acquire."

If the central Illinois campaign meets its target goal of $12,000, such letters could get sent out to people in McLean County — although, since bills and debt collector notices come via mail also, Lempert said there is a bit of irony there.

"They're burdened both financially and emotionally and they get a letter — they don't want to open it, right?" he said. "Luckily, whether they open it or not, they still get the benefit. A lot of people are like, 'There's no way this is true' and we do our best to... confirm that it is, in fact, a real abolishment."

'We all face those kinds of needs'

Further north in Illinois, Cook County became the first governmental agency to partner with RIP Medical Debt earlier this year. Chicago's public radio station WBEZ reported in May that nearly 45,000 people in the county had received letters letting them know their medical debt had been abolished and similar news was on the way for around 73,000 more people.

The plan is to use $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to pay off up to $1 billion in Cook County residents' medical debt.

"Increasingly, we are working with local governments, which is a new landscape for us," Lempert said of RIP Medical Debt. "It's a really interesting and exciting new territory for us."

If a $12,000 goal for central Illinois doesn't seem like much in comparison, Lempert said the model the nonprofit uses allows a dollar to stretch further than one might think it would.

"The secret sauce, so to speak, is that medical debts in this country are bought and sold in bundled portfolios for a fraction of their face value — so you can buy a lot of debt very cheaply," he said. "These are typically debts that have gone through the revenue cycle and they aren't able to collect on these debts often because individuals are struggling financial, etc. So as a nonprofit, we sort of leveraged this existing model and created this new approach to philanthropy."

The formula of the so-called "secret sauce" is that $1 donated to RIP Medical Debt can be turned into about $100 in purchased debt — or the amount of purchased debt is about 100 times the amount that's donated.

The website for the central Illinois campaign indicated as of early Wednesday that about half of the goal has been met so far. The campaign is set to conclude later this summer.

Hastings of First Baptist Church in Bloomington said he'd like to see others join up too; since First Baptist announced its participation a few weeks ago, Centennial Christian Church and the Mennonite Church in Normal, as well as Christ the King Episcopal Church in Bloomington, have signed on.

Hastings said First Baptist Church will hold a debt jubilee celebration the weekend of Aug. 26-27 and will invite other congregations and the general public to donate to the campaign that weekend.

"We can all incur debts that we need help getting out of, but especially medical debt, is not a debt that's incurred out of greed or out of mistakes," Hastings said. "We all face those kinds of needs, so I think that was just a really easy, 'Yes, this is a cool thing and let's see what we can do to be involved in it.'"

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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