Nine United Church of Christ congregations in Northern California were able to eliminate a lot more medical debt than first thought, with a second buy whose impact totaled almost $2 million.
The churches, in collaboration with the National Setting and the Northern California Nevada Conference UCC, raised $52,000 for medical debt relief in their state. The donations, funneled through nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, abolished $5,473,959.51 in debt for 2,604 families in 34 counties in late July. A just-announced second buy abolished an additional $1,982,983.25, assisting 935 families in 24 counties, with almost half of the households in Los Angeles County. Riverside, Sacramento and San Diego Counties round out the top four areas.
“From what I understand it was just a misunderstanding on the part of our debt buying team,” said Sam Garber, donor services associate, RIP Medical Debt. “They thought they had allocated the entire donation from the fundraiser, but actually there was around $9,000 left they put towards this second purchase.”
The total purchase, over $7.4 million, has touched 3,539 households in a state struggling with disasters, both natural and man-made.
"We in California are battling multiple pandemics at the same time: not just COVID-19, but white supremacy and racial injustice, and the climate catastrophe made visible in apocalyptic wildfires and smoke-filled skies. In the utter absence of strong federal leadership and support, abandoned to ourselves--still we know how to hold one another through these hard times, and serve our most vulnerable neighbors,” said the Rev. Molly Baskette, pastor of First Church Berkeley. “We are proud to be each other's keepers by erasing medical debt and the yoke it puts around the necks of already suffering people."
First Church initiated the donation campaign, which grew to include eight other area churches: Arlington Community Church in Kensington, Berkeley Chinese Community Church (UCC), First Congregational Church of Alameda UCC, First Congregational Church of Oakland UCC, First Congregational Church of Auburn, The Good Table UCC in El Cerrito, Hillcrest Congregational Church in Pleasant Hill, and Skyland UCC in Los Gatos.
The effort began in late February during Lent, just before the coronavirus pandemic.
Latest in series of UCC buys across U.S.
The West Coast campaign was inspired by similar efforts by UCC churches in Chicago and St. Louis. The Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC associate general minister, is leading the denomination’s initiative to reach low-income Americans living in every one of the UCC’s geographic regions.
The UCC national effort to forgive medical debt began last year in the Great Lakes Region with the Chicago buy. Local church, Conference and Justice and Local Church Ministries donations combined to abolish $5.3 million in debt for 5,888 families on the city’s South Side in late September 2019.
In January, 11,108 families in the West Central Region learned that their outstanding medical debt has been forgiven. Local churches, regional bodies, the national office and inspired individuals, matched in part by a generous investment from the Deaconess Foundation, wiped out $12.9 million in debt for low-income households in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Who qualifies; why it matters
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 California campaign, in the UCC’s Western Region, is being followed by a Southern New England Conference campaign in the New England Region, and another in the West Central Region through the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference.
The UCC, which collected over $112,000 in a Dec. 2019 Giving Tuesday campaign to supplement local and regional efforts, is able to make medical debt forgiveness possible in partnership with nonprofit, RIP Medical Debt, founded in 2014 by two former debt collection executives.
Working with groups like the UCC, RIP has been able to erase over $1.4 billion dollars in medical debt across the nation, assisting 1,819,000 families.