Churches raising money to forgive $4.5 million in medical debt
By Meagan Ewton
What started as a question from a church member has grown into an effort to forgive $4.5 million in medical debt.
Rev. Jeff Hinton of First UMC in Okeene and Rev. Emily Robnett of New Hope UMC in Enid are working together to raise $45,000 to forgive medical debt in 17 counties in northwest Oklahoma through RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit debt acquisition company that purchases and abolishes medical debt for pennies on the dollar. The organization can forgive up to $10,000 in debt for just $100.
Hinton said he first heard about RIP Medical Debt in August from a church member who had read an article about the work and wondered if their congregation could do something similar in their community. After researching the organization, the administrative council voted to pursue the opportunity. Hinton said the church raised $10,000 in about a month.
“In this work we are helping to bring good news to those who are struggling against these giants of debt keeping them in captivity,” Hinton said. “It feels like we have the real opportunity to offer resurrection not only spiritually but materially for our friends and neighbors. We can give people their lives back.”
Hinton shared the idea with Robnett who presented the idea to her church. Despite the busy church season, volunteers stepped up to host a Bingo night on Oct. 26. New Hope raised $835 initially, with later donations raising the total to more than $1,000. Robnett believes forgiving medical debt is one way to live out tenants of the Lord’s Prayer.
“The UMC states in its Social Principles that we believe health care is a basic human right. Everyone should have access to healthcare, and it should not be financially crippling to utilize that healthcare,” Robnett said. “We also believe we are in the business of justice and mercy, of resurrection and new life. What better way to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? What better way to show the world that God is still giving people new life?”
According to 2018 census data, Oklahoma has the second highest uninsured rate in the country at 14.2 percent. That total is significantly higher than the national average of 8.5 percent that same year.
“As a state that didn't expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, we have a ton of people that fall into a ‘Medicaid Gap’ where they make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to actually afford health insurance,” Hinton said. “We are all connected to someone who is in debt as a result of an illness, a cancer diagnosis, an unexpected injury, or even something like the birth of a child.”
Both Hinton and Robnett see the gospel in action through the forgiveness of medical debt. When asked, both pointed to Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:16-19 as Biblical support for the work.
“We are the Body of Christ in this world, and God continues God's merciful, life-giving work through us,” Robnett said. “Through us, God is still preaching the good news, still proclaiming release to those held captive and oppressed by their debt, and to announce that God is still working to save God's people.”
The churches have received positive feedback for their efforts, and Hinton said there are some partnerships in the works to continue raising funds. He hopes others will get involved and not be intimidated by the prospect of raising thousands of dollars.
“We called our project #BeTheDavid because we know that people in our community are facing down these giant debts that seem unconquerable,” Hinton said. “Goliath wasn't defeated by some big bomb; David collected a bunch of small stones and put those to use. We can gather up little by little and all of us working together can make a big impact for those in need.”
Robnett said a donor stepped forward to match the next $5,000 in contributions to the campaign, helping each dollar go further to forgiving medical debt.
“I believe that nothing we are willing to do to make this world a better place is too small to make a difference,” Robnett said. “Small acts of love, compassion, and kindness always make a difference. If we all only did a little, it would go a long way.”
Donations to the project may be made online through RIP Medical Debt at secure.qgiv.com/event/okeene.