Church group pays off medical debt for some Oklahomans
More than 3,200 households in Oklahoma and Kansas will have something special to be thankful for this holiday season as they learn that a faith group paid off their medical debt worth a total $5.2 million.
Donations to pay off the debts came from 20 United Church of Christ congregations — including several in Oklahoma — plus several individuals and church bodies in the denomination's Kansas-Oklahoma Conference. The targeted households spanned across 60 counties in Oklahoma and 76 Kansas counties.
In a virtual news conference on Tuesday, local, regional and national United Church of Christ leaders said letters were being mailed telling people their medical debt had been forgiven.
The Rev. Lori Walke, senior pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church-United Church of Christ, one of two Oklahoma churches that participated in the fundraiser to pay off the medical debt. Fellowship Congregational-United Church of Christ in Tulsa, led by the Rev. Chris Moore, was another participating church.
"The numbers surrounding medical debt are staggering, especially in Oklahoma. Over a quarter of Oklahomans are struggling with medical debt, to the tune of over a billion dollars," Walke said.
"Our response as people of faith is two-fold — one, to provide immediate relief to families and to advocate for a system that doesn't create such crushing debt in the first place. Mayflower UCC is proud to be part of a denomination that seeks to do both, today by offering financial release from medical debt, but also by working to expand health insurance coverage and a living wage. We consider both to be matters of faith."
In the recent news conference, titled "RIP Medical Debt," Moore .
The leaders said the conference-wide fundraising campaign which began before the coronavirus pandemic, along with a funds from a UCC national ministry, raised $40,000. Those donations were sent to the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, which bought up debt for pennies on the dollar in October.
The faith leaders said the nonprofit's purchase wiped out $5,211,729 in medical debt for 3,234 households. The average amount forgiven per household was $1,612.54.
In Oklahoma, the highest amounts of debt abolished were in: Cleveland County (over $1.66 million, 1,258 households); Oklahoma County (over $1.2 million, 802 households); Garvin County (over $276,000, 128 households); Pottawatomie County (over $260,000, 132 households); and Comanche County (over $56,000, 28 households).
“One of the roles of the church is charity, but another equally important and different role is that of justice,” Moore said during the recent news conference.
"During a pandemic it becomes even more important for the church to step in, disrupting unjust systems like ones that subject people to financial ruin simply because they have become sick or injured. If marshaling our resources for medical debt relief isn’t ‘being the church,’ I don’t know what is."
Bobbie Henderson of Tulsa, president of the denomination's Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, thanked the individuals and churches who gave to the effort to change the lives of thousands of people, including children.
"If you have ever been swimming in debt, it can feel like drowning," she said.
Specific criteria were used to determine who qualified for the pay off. Qualifying debtors were those earning less than two times the federal poverty level; in financial hardship, with out-of-pocket expenses that are 5 percent or more of their annual income; or facing insolvency, with debts greater than assets.
The debt buy was made anonymously; the denominational leaders said the UCC does not know who specifically benefited from it. They said through the RIP Medical Debt nonproift, a yellow envelope bearing a UCC logo is on the way to each benefiting family, with a letter naming contributing congregations and organizations.
It reads: “You may never enter the doors of one of our churches, but we are the United Church of Christ and we love you. … Most importantly, you are beloved by God and your debt has been forgiven."
To date, $57 million in medical debt has been abolished by United Church of Christ.
The United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, has more than 800,000 members in 4,852 congregations nationwide.