How a Group of Churches Settled $12M in Medical Debt

How a Group of Churches Settled $12M in Medical Debt

The phone’s ringing again. Another call from another debt collector. The third today.

As Mary prepared a small lunch for her youngest child, she had to lean against the counter to keep herself from feeling like she would sink to the floor. Dragged down by the invisible and inescapable weight of medical debt.

Over the last year, things had only gotten worse. Like an anchor that drags across the ocean floor and collects more debris, the amount she owed for her hospital stay after a minor heart attack had caused her to miss other payments elsewhere. She was behind on rent, couldn’t find the end of her credit card statement, and could barely afford to keep her utilities paid up.

From where she leaned, it felt like there was no hope. Just an ever-widening pit beneath her.

Before her hospital stay, her life was on track. Her job was decent, stable, and provided enough income to cover the needs of her and her two children. Then one day, a pain in her left arm and tightness in her chest sent her into debt for almost $110,000 – after what her insurance paid for life-saving treatment. Weeks in recovery caused too much time away from work and she was eventually replaced. Things kept mounting.

Mary had never really given much thought to medial debt before falling ill, but a quick Google search showed her that she wasn’t alone. Medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the United States. Each year about 530,000 families file for bankruptcy because of it.

Unsure of anywhere she could turn for help, Mary felt trapped. She could see no light at the end of the tunnel she was facing but still had to keep her family moving forward. She whispered a quiet prayer for strength and relief before doing the best she could to get herself and her kids through the day.


Hope Arises

The funny thing about hope is that its absence is enormous but it can be fully restored through some of the simplest of acts. Like a community that stands together in recognition of the pain that medical debt can cause and decides to help in whatever small ways it can. A dollar here, a dollar there, growing in ways nobody could have imagined.

Although Mary didn’t know it, help was on its way. A chance partnership in her region was building up an improbable amount of momentum to bring relief from medical debt and set area residents free.

Congregations from several Northwest Indiana churches had been collaborating with each other and national medical debt elimination experts to bring help to those in need. Their results would be simply economically astounding.


Water to Wine

Multiple NWI churches were involved in the effort to eliminate $12M in medical debt. Several of the individuals who led the effort included (l to r): Dexter Harris, Gary Campus Pastor, Bethel Church; Greg Lee, Lead Pastor, Suncrest Christian Church; Rev. Curtis Whittaker, Sr., Senior Pastor of Progressive Community Church; Jason Pena, Associate Pastor, New Life Community Church.

$78,200 in small donations from regional parishioners was raised to permanently settle $12 million in medical debt – an act truly analogous to turning water into wine.

To achieve this, Northwest Indiana churches collaborated with RIP Medical Debt, a 501(C)(3) charity that focuses exclusively on the elimination of personal medical debt. The organization has a well-established track record of negotiating down extreme sums, sometimes for pennies on the dollar. They work from the neediest cases on up.

When the debt is forgiven, it is listed as paid on an individual’s credit report. Approximately $8 million of the debt was in the Gary area and the remaining $4 million was from communities all over Northwest Indiana.

Although medical debt is not a cause typically taken on by churches, there’s no question it fits perfectly with their mission to serve others.

“In some ways, this is the most tangible difference that can be made in a person’s life,” said Greg Lee, Lead Pastor at Suncrest Christian Church in St. John.

“Medical debt imprisons you,” said Rev. Curtis Whittaker, Sr., Senior Pastor of Progressive Community Church of Gary. “It has a very negative multiplier effect. Our feeling was that we had to do something to help people move forward in a positive way. We’re seeing this outcome impacting lives on multiple levels and setting people free.”


Relief and a New Day

People don’t expect to find the answer to their prayers in the mail, but that very thing happened for Mary one afternoon. As she carried her letters into the house, expecting to find more bills and collection warnings, she noticed a statement from the hospital. Somehow, someway, her massive balance was listed as paid. She couldn’t believe it and had to make about a dozen calls to various offices to confirm it was true. It was. It really was.

From that day on, she started to rebuild. It wasn’t easy at first – medical debt had created a lot of additional debt – but now she had a firm foothold on the edge of the pit where she’d been sinking. With her credit report listing the debt as paid, she was finally able gain the traction she needed to move on with her life. To heal, in more ways than one, and to finally see the light ahead for her family’s future.

Mary’s story, although fictionalized for this telling, is absolutely very real for hundreds of families in Northwest Indiana. If you or your organization would like to do something to help, you can by making a donation to The nonprofit also offers several regional campaigns, if you’d like to support your local community.


NWI Church Organizations that Helped Eliminate $12M in Medical Debt

  • Progressive Community Church of Gary
  • Suncrest Christian Church
  • Faith Church
  • Bethel Church
  • Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church
  • New Life Community Church (Hobart)
  • The Gathering of Northwest Indiana
  • First Unitarian Church of Hobart

Source: Greg Lee, Suncrest Christian Church

Category Features, Health