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Intervention that’s divine

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Imagine getting a letter from a collection agency saying your outstanding medical debt had been paid off and credit agencies were notified the obligation had been cleared.

That’s exactly what happened for 234 people in New Mexico and 548 in Arizona who collectively had nearly $1.4 million in medical debt wiped out thanks to a $15,000 contribution from St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Santa Fe.

The Rev. M. Catherine Volland, rector of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, used church donations and a nonprofit’s expertise to help buy and pay off medical debt for people. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Peg Maish, a spokeswoman for St. Bede’s, said Friday the donation was made to RIP Medical Debt, a New York nonprofit that buys outstanding medical debt in bulk on the secondary debt market, paying about 1 cent for every one dollar of debt, and then, instead of trying to collect on that debt, RIP pays it off.

In other words, Maish said, for every $1 of debt purchased by RIP, $100 of medical debt was cleared, including more than $447,000 worth of debt to people in New Mexico.

“We have ongoing relationships with groups that try to relieve poverty on the Navajo Nation, and we have projects in Santa Fe where we’re working with food insecurity and homelessness,” Maish said.

“Our focus is to try to do what we can, and not just collect money and make ourselves wealthier, but to use our donations to relieve suffering and help people near our home. It’s just a natural outgrowth of what we feel our mission is as a parish.”

The Rev. M. Catherine Volland, rector at St. Bede’s, said Friday she wasn’t aware of any other program funded by the parish that had such a large impact. “We were able to do it because, every week, we set aside 10% of donations to the church for outreach,” Volland said.

The church, she said, recognizes that medical debt is problematic not only for people in New Mexico, but also around the country.

“I would love a solution to medical debt that involves people not getting into debt in the first place and giving them access to medical rates and medical insurance that is affordable,” Volland said. “But, until we get there, we want to help people so that medical debt doesn’t follow them forever.”

By partnering with RIP, Volland said, “we used their expertise to really leverage those donations to have an impact on families.”

RIP Medical Debt was founded in 2014 by two former debt collectors who wanted to use their industry know-how to help relieve people of their medical debt, said company spokesman Daniel Lempert.

“Our founders, working with a group of people, purchased medical debt in bulk, as a debt collector does, but, instead of collecting on the debt, they just paid it off as a sort of act of forgiveness and to draw attention to the medical debt crisis in America,” he said.

Among the criteria used by RIP in selecting recipients is whether the person or family’s yearly income is less than twice the federal poverty level; if their debts are 5% or more of their annual income; and if they’re facing insolvency and have debts greater than their assets.

Those whose debts are purchased and abolished are sent a letter informing them of the action and inviting them to contact RIP with any questions. Many do, wanting to confirm that this good news is true, Lempert said.

“Of course, they’re grateful for the relief itself, grateful to know someone – a stranger – was watching out for them,” he said, “and grateful to have that debt off their backs and see their credit scores go up.”

There’s also “a kind of spiritual element for a lot of people” when told the debt relief was a result of a charitable donation from a church, Lempert said.

Since its founding, RIP Medical Debt has helped more than 2.6 million families shed more than $4.5 billion in medical debt, Lempert said.

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