The Rev. Traci Blackmon counts each modest contribution to an ambitious United Church of Christ program aiding people trapped by medical debt in Kansas and Oklahoma as a gospel-infused demand for justice.
Indeed, the pastor said, $5.2 million in health care debt held by more than 3,200 households in these two states was forgiven near the Thanksgiving holiday thanks to UCC congregations. This emancipating stride offers recipients an opportunity to revise their outlook on life, she said.
For these families, Freedom from the onus of impossible debt means deferred dreams of owning a car, finishing school or qualifying for a home loan are not fantasy.
“This effort on behalf of the United Church of Christ is not solely about charity and it is certainly not so we can pat ourselves on the back,” said Blackmon, associate general minister in UCC’s Kansas-Oklahoma conference. “It is our way of calling attention to a justice issue that runs deep in the fabric of our United States.”
“The purpose is to sound the alarm that we cannot be a country of prosperity, a country of more than enough, and be silent about those who suffer among us. The rising cost of health care has made living a healthy life prohibitive for too many,” she said.
United Church of Christ has 40 congregations in Kansas and 13 in Oklahoma with about 7,000 members. Collectively, these mostly small churches and the UCC national ministry raised $40,000 to purchase medical debt, sometimes at pennies on the dollar, from the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt.
Impact: 3,234 households
In October, the transaction eliminated $5.2 million in health-related debt in 3,234 households. The average amount forgiven in Oklahoma and Kansas was $1,612. In Kansas, distribution included: Sedgwick County, $264,000, 117 households; Dickinson County, $93,000, 10 households; Finney County, $66,000, 16 households; Johnson County, $63,000, 47 households; Montgomery County, $53,000, 15 households.
Qualifying debtors had to earn less than two times the federal poverty level; in financial hardship, with out-of-pocket expenses amounting to 5% or more of their annual income; or facing insolvency, with debts greater than assets.
The churches don’t know the identity of people whose debt was erased. RIP Medical Debt is responsible for sending letters to recipients naming the congregations and organizations that help make the forgiveness possible.
The letter’s messsage: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And most importantly, you are beloved by God and your debt has been forgiven.”