Unbeknownst to them, hundreds of low-income Missourians burdened with heavy medical debt are about to find that their burden has been lifted.

As part of a partnership between the Lutheran Peace Church in Washington and the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, eligible Missourians in 80 counties are set to have their medical debt erased by 2, $5 million.

The debt was purchased for about a penny on the dollar from various collection agencies, with the $13,437 the church collected being applied to the medical debt of 824 people. This includes nearly $9,000 that non-religious members have contributed to Peace Lutheran’s campaign, which began in December 2019.

Affected Missourians should have received or will receive a letter from RIP Medical Debt regarding their debt forgiveness in the coming weeks, said Daniel Lempert, director of communications for RIP Medical Debt.

“We started this campaign (in 2019) with the intention of focusing on the medical debt of people in our community, in Franklin County and counties immediately adjacent to Franklin County,” said Aimee Appell, pastor of the Peace Lutheran Church, which averages about 100 people per service.

RIP Medical Debt can target debt portfolios from specific geographic regions and prioritize debt belonging to certain groups of people, such as veterans, but not to specific people, Lempert said. This means that religious affiliation plays no role in who benefits from the Peace Lutheran donation.

“This is not just a gift to these individuals or their families, but to society as a whole,” Appell said. “Now these people can take the money they were going to spend on their debt and use it in their local economies.

“This campaign is going to create a ripple effect that will ultimately benefit communities across Missouri,” she said.

In Franklin County, the campaign erased $24,515.20 in medical debt, benefiting 10 residents.

The campaign paid the medical debts of 116 St. Charles County residents, which totaled $167,144. The campaign also paid the medical debts of 32 St. Louis County residents, who had debts totaling $26,343; 62 residents of Jefferson County, who had debts totaling $74,127; 12 Washington County residents, who had debts totaling $15,006; 16 residents of Crawford County, who had debts in total$34,618; and a Gasconade County resident totaling $753.41. The campaign also paid the medical debts of 18 residents of the city of St. Louis, who had debts totaling $36,262.

After paying those debts, Peace Lutheran expanded the reach of the campaign to include any Missouri resident who faces medical debts of 5% or more of their annual household income, or lives below 200% of the threshold. of federal poverty. For a family of four, this would represent a family income of approximately $54,000.

Peace Lutheran’s decision came after a separate campaign by a different church wiped out medical debts in neighboring counties. Instead of keeping what they collected to pay off future medical debts, Peace Lutheran decided to put the money to work now.

“We were shown a map of the hardest hit areas — areas that are the poorest parts of our state, like in the Bootheel and in the Ozarks,” Appell said. “We saw that these people needed as much as our immediate neighbours. So we decided that we didn’t want that money sitting in a bank account and not helping people. That’s not what God calls us to do – he calls us to help each other, to help our neighbors.

Campaign dollars will indeed help people in many different ways, including emotionally, spiritually and physically, Lempert said.

“Medical debt may actually be a barrier that prevents some people from seeking follow-up medical care,” Lempert said.

Medical debt relief has been a growing trend in recent years. Since 2018, dozens of churches across the country — and in Missouri — have partnered with RIP Medical Debt.

For example, in 2019, Columbia’s Crossing Church raised more than $430,000 in a campaign that resulted in the repayment of $43 million in medical debt for low-income Missourians.

In 2020, several United Churches of Christ in the St. Louis area joined together to pay off $12.9 million in medical debt for more than 11,000 families in the St. Louis area.

Since its inception in 2018, RIP Medical Debt has purchased $3.9 billion in medical debt, helping more than 2.3 million American individuals and families.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, more than 30% of non-elderly adults in Missouri had medical debt in 2015, which matches the most recent data available. Missouri ranks seventh in the nation for the highest medical debt burden, according to the study.

Kathy Hurlbert, a member of the Lutheran Congregation of Peace and a resident of Washington, knows firsthand how debilitating it can be to deal with a large medical debt. She met what seemed like insurmountable bills when her husband, Larry, died of cancer which the couple say was likely caused by Larry’s exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“At the lowest point in my life, I found a bill shortly after his death for $21,000. I was lucky enough to be able to cash in on a life insurance policy, but not everyone is so lucky Hurlbert said “Medical bills can be so overwhelming, especially if they don’t have insurance.”

Hurlbert spoke openly about his experiences with the Peace Lutheran congregation and with friends. She said participating in the RIP Medical Debt campaign and seeing the response from the community has strengthened her faith.

“For me, it just showed me that there are still people who care about us in this world,” Hurlbert said.