Pre-pandemic, members of St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ were big volunteers. They liked to go out into the community, cooking and serving meals at shelters and tutoring local children in and out of school. But, during the height of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic, in-person volunteer activities were severely limited, leaving many would-be volunteers in the 175-member church frustrated.
It was a historic time of darkness, and many members desperately wanted to bring light to others’ lives. But they couldn’t.
Jason Mitchell, a member of the church’s Board of Mission and Witness, a member-led group that initiates outreach activities, said that the COVID safety restrictions and his fellow members’ increased interest in helping others were bumping up against each other.
“There was a desire to do as much good as we could,” Mitchell explained. “But on the flip side we couldn’t do anything physically because we all needed to stay safe.”
Victoria Wilgocki, St. Anthony Park UCC’s pastor, knew about this struggle. It was hard to watch her parishioners’ good intentions “languishing,” she said, so she began researching volunteer opportunities that could be done remotely.
One day, Wilgocki read about a fundraising drive led by five churches in Winona that had gathered enough money to pay off more than $2 million in medical debt. The drive was conducted in partnership with RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based nonprofit that buys medical debt from collections agencies at a steep discount, permanently relieving individuals and families of their debt burden.
Intrigued, Wilgocki called Danielle Bartz, pastor of First Congregational Church, a UCC congregation in Winona that participated in the drive.
“I said, ‘Hey, tell me about this,’” Wilgocki recalled. What she learned felt hopeful and exciting.
Bartz explained that after learning about the crushing burden of medical debt, members of the “Tuesday Morning Group,” an interfaith group of Winona-area church leaders, decided to start a fundraising drive among members of their congregations. The campaign, which was conducted remotely during the early months of the pandemic, netted some $15,000, which was then donated to RIP Medical Debt.
“This felt totally doable and safe for us,” Wilgocki said. Though it still wasn’t safe for members of her church to help others face-to-face, “I felt this would have far-reaching impact. Even though we’d never meet these people, we could ease their burden. We have a biblical mandate to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Wilgocki brought the idea to Mitchell and his fellow board members. It was met with enthusiastic approval.
“It ticked all the boxes for being able to do something socially distanced and a directed approach toward people in need,” Mitchell explained. “It really seemed like a no-brainer in that we could capture the increased good will that our congregation was feeling.”
An ‘awful’ system
While the fact that this fundraising campaign could be conducted remotely had clear appeal to church members, the campaign’s targeted recipients felt especially timely and worthwhile, Mitchell said.
“Our health care system can be awful,” he said. During a global pandemic, many Americans were likely facing unexpected medical expenses, and the idea of being able to help even a handful of families toss the weight of debt off their shoulders felt perfect: “Say you get sick and have to go to the hospital or you’re dealing with the trauma of having a family member who’s sick.” Even if everyone recovers, Mitchell said, the worries aren’t over: “If you don’t have insurance — bam — you’re hit with an enormous bill. If you live at the poverty level, there is no way you are ever going to pay that off.”
Nationwide, medical debt is an enormous burden for Americans, especially the uninsured or those just struggling to make ends meet.
“There’s an enormous amount of medical debt all over the country,” Mitchell said. What he and his fellow board members learned about the way RIP Medical Debt operates helped them feel like their donated dollars could go a long way: “This program really goes after certain types of debt. It identifies households that are below the federal poverty level, people whose debt accounts for 5 percent or more of their annual income.”
Holding large amounts of medical debt carries a psychological burden, Wilgocki said: “Shame, anxiety, fatigue — all those things come from longstanding debt. Debt collectors just harangue people.”
People with good medical coverage and a strong savings account aren’t often aware of the risks that come with medical debt — or how easily it can add up, Wilgocki added.
“Medical debt can happen at any time. Say a person is injured and needs to use an ambulance to get to the hospital — ambulance fees are really high. And people with a chronic health condition can accumulate debt over time.”
Allison Sesso, RIP Medical Debt’s executive director, said that this debt accumulation can put a person’s overall health at greater risk.
Holding debt “does have implications for people’s well-being overall, for their mental health,” she said. “If you have medical debt looming over you, it does have an impact on your well-being. That’s why eliminating medical debt for people can have such an overarchingly positive impact.”
Power in numbers
St. Anthony Park UCC members wanted their fundraising campaign to have a larger impact, so Wilgocki decided to contact Rick King, pastor of Falcon Heights Church, a UCC congregation located just a few miles away.
“They are the geographically closest to us,” Wilgocki said. In these isolated times, it felt good to be involved with another group of volunteers, if just virtually: “I wanted to be able to celebrate and be proud of our accomplishments with another church. It was more fun.”
When he read Wilgocki’s email, King said he was excited to participate. “I was glad when Victoria asked, ‘Do you want to do this as a collaborative effort?’” King said. “I was like, ‘That’s a great program. I’m there.’”
King said he had already heard about RIP Medical Debt before the pandemic. “The largest church in our denomination, Trinity UCC in Chicago, had led the way on coordinating a bunch of churches on the South Side to do a similar fundraising drive.”
King had been interested in Trinity’s campaign, and was wondering how he could get his small congregation involved. When Wilgocki raised the idea of his church joining forces with hers, it felt like it was meant to be.
“When two or more points come together, if this is your third or second contact with something, you kind of follow it,” King said. “You think, ‘There must be something spiritual going on here.’”
Like St Anthony Park UCC, members of Falcon Heights Church had been searching for ways to help others while staying safe during the pandemic.
“We were looking for something we could do online and something that would make an impact on a group of people who were likely to be hurting worse than they had before,” King said. “People with medical debt have been hurting for a long time, and it seems like the last year could only make things worse.”
Before bringing the idea in front of the whole congregation, King met with members of his board. The group decided to take a deeper look at RIP Medical Debt.
“When you hear about what this organization does, at the outset, it seems too good to be true. You ask yourself, ‘How did they clear that much medical debt with that much money? This must be a Ponzi scheme.’” The group read more about the organization and its work, and did a deeper dive into their history and reputation. “We got their GuideStar rating,” King said, “and asked other churches to tell us what their experience had been working with them.”
When the background research came back positive, they decided to let members know about this opportunity for good work. King explained that they started the campaign off with a “soft opening,” sharing a donation link and inviting members to give. To encourage more participation, he talked about the issue in a couple of Zoom sermons, sent a letter to the congregation and wrote about the campaign in the church newsletter.
The burden of medical debt, King said, “is something that’s in people’s consciousness, but at the same time we also know that most of us in this church live upper-middle-class, privileged lives and are not that touched by this kind of debt.” Still, the message stuck with his members, and the idea began to pick up steam.
“At least one person has said, ‘You think about the national parks as one of the best ideas that America has thought of and health care being dependent on our employer as one of the worst. It just doesn’t make any sense,’” King said. “It’s very common that people are ruined financially by medical debt. This was a conversation that was easy to have with my congregation.”
Coming together to help others in need can be a way to lift your community out of the COVID doldrums, Sesso said. Donors have told her that knowing their donations made real change in the lives of others feels satisfying — a real, tangible accomplishment.
“During this isolated period that we’ve gone through, people who are coming together to donate are hearing a message that there is humanity and we are connected to other people we don’t even know,” Sesso said. “In this awful moment, they are stepping forward to help strangers. They are this ray of sunshine coming into their homes and helping them.”
Together, the two churches collected $28,275, which they donated to RIP Medical Debt. The nonprofit used the money to eliminate $2,848,121 of old medical debt for 2,178 households in five states: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Georgia.
From the outside at least, the way RIP Medical Debt is able to make donations like the UCC churches’ go this far seems complicated, but Wilgocki explained that the process is actually fairly simple. “RIP Medical Debt buys debt from debt collection agencies,” she said. “When medical debt is longstanding, the collection agencies just want to dump it off their books. RIP Medical Debt knows that and comes in and pays it off for pennies on the dollar.”
RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by Craig Ancito and Jerry Ashton, Sesso said, “two amazing and courageous debt-buyer executives. They worked in the debt-purchasing and collection field and were inspired by some of the events going on with Occupy Wall Street.”
Ancito and Ashton’s first goal was to abolish $1 billion worth of medical debt, Sesso said. “We hit that two years ago.” Then, John Oliver featured the nonprofit on his show “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”: “People were really intrigued by this idea and all of this money started coming in. We got more attention, the website crashed, and ever since then the organization’s been on a trajectory to do much more in terms of debt abolishment.”
Donations from members at the two churches came at a wide variety of levels, everything from $20 to $1,000. Some sources came from a less-direct route: Mitchell explained that at St. Anthony Park UCC, campaign leaders decided to capitalize on the COVID-inspired stimulus checks that were mailed to many members in 2020.
“Certain members of the church said they didn’t need their stimulus money. They gave it to the church. So we earmarked some of that money to give to the RIP Medical Debt program.”
Wilgocki said that she and King were happy to be able to marshal the giving power of their congregations to eliminate the medical debt of so many strangers.
“Medical debt is a tremendous burden through no fault of anyone,” she said. “People are snared in a very difficult, complex and often unjust system of both health insurance and health care,” Data has proven, she continued, that “the health care industry is particularly difficult on people of color, people of low income and impoverished communities.”
Members of the two congregations believe their fundraiser is, she continued, “one small way that we can leverage our generosity and make a really big impact on people’s lives for the better, to lift them out of the burden.”