Did you know that six of every 10 bankruptcies list medical debt as a contributing factor, according to a Harvard study? Medical debt accounts for a staggering $88 billion on credit reports. And it can be an immense source of stress for those already struggling.
In Lincoln, Neb., one church is helping members of the community by paying down their medical debt, using funds cobbled together with cash from collection plates and seed money from others. As with any weighty issue, it’s a first – yet important – first step.
LINCOLN, Neb. – The head man at First-Plymouth Congregational Church is wearing sneakers and jeans for the 11:59 service – a laid-back and come-as-you-are worship.
In the next 35 minutes, senior pastor Jim Keck will quote his mother, baptize a 3-year-old, extoll moral courage, share a short version of the long history of the church, and segue from the Lord’s Prayer to the church’s newest initiative.
“That moment where we say, ‘Forgive us our debts?’ You see here, in these months, we’re trying to help pay the medical debt in central Lincoln.”
Anything you put in the plate, every penny, helps settle the health care debts of your neighbors.
It all started with Juan Carlos Huertas.
Keck had been surfing sermons on Facebook in Spring 2020. Huertas drew him in. Here’s a man passionate about justice and community.
Here’s the guy who could help our church write its post-pandemic chapter, Keck thought.
He invited the Methodist minister from Puerto Rico to preach in Lincoln, eventually luring him away from Louisiana, where he’d served for 16 years.
The two pastors began kicking around big ideas. The pandemic had shone a light on healthcare and inequity. They knew churches around the country had bought up vast amounts of medical debt.
“But we didn’t want to do that in America at large,” Keck said. “We wanted to help our own neighbors in central Lincoln.”
For the next few months, Huertas dug in. He read as much as he could about medical debt, made cold calls and sent emails, learned all he could about this thorny American issue.
The more he learned, the more he realized: “This is an issue with our neighbors.”
‘give a hand’
It’s easy for people to fall behind on medical bills, he said. To miss payments and end up in collections. Your kid gets sick. You get sick.
During his months of research, Huertas tracked down the three debt collection agencies responsible for collecting most of the medical debt near the church.
Only one called back.
They worked out a deal. The debt collector would be a silent partner, providing the church with a small discount on the balance and a list of central Lincoln neighbors with debt. No names. No addresses.
The church had its own rules. The recipients needed to be current on payments, showing good faith on paying down their debt.
Rule No. 2: The church would give without expectation. No strings attached. No acknowledgement needed.
The project launched in late February, cobbled together with cash from collection plates and seed money from members who knew the roll-out was coming.
A small committee sat down with $8,000 and a list.
A cancer patient unable to work who owed $1,500.
A retiree living on Social Security who owed $300.
A single parent without child support who needed $800 to get out of debt.
That night they retired the debt of 11 neighbors.
Stephanie Dinger is a member of the committee. She remembers how good that felt.
“You can never get ahead if you have medical bills. To me that is God, to give a hand to someone.”
A form letter from the collection agency went out to each recipient that included a phone number and an email for First-Plymouth’s justNeighbors project and the balance of each account: $0.
A few days later, the phone rang at First-Plymouth. On the other end was a woman who’d been chipping away at a $3,000 debt for years.
Keck recounts what she said next: “I don’t even have words to let you know what it feels like. The only thing I can feel is thank you, Jesus.”
‘overwhelming medical debt’
Paul Rea has been a bankruptcy attorney in Lincoln for nearly 30 years, long enough to know why his fellow Nebraskans go bankrupt.
“When you look at the typical bankruptcy, the vast majority will have some medical debt, and there’s a significant minority of cases where people have overwhelming medical debt.”
Last fall, Lori Seibel, president of the Community Health Endowment, a nonprofit with the lofty goal of trying to make Lincoln the healthiest community in the nation, met with Huertas to provide him insight into the demographics around First-Plymouth, and the church’s power as a neighborhood anchor.
But she was skeptical, too, of the church’s grand plan.
“My first thought was, ‘It’s such a huge problem and what can one entity do?’” Seibel said.
Then, she realized: “Will they be able to solve every person’s medical debt? No. But for those people they do, it’s life-changing.”
On that first day of spring, when church leaders emptied the collection plates from that morning’s service, they counted everything from pennies to $100 bills.
They added that to the cash from the collection plates the first two weekends of March, and the mailed-in checks and donations to its online medical debt portal. They arrived at a total: $45,000.
The committee met for a second time on March 22. They looked at a new list.
A food service worker who owed $1,300.
A parent who owed $600.
A renter working and living alone paying down $1,000 debt.
A letter would soon be on its way to 35 households whose medical debt has been erased.
In the last month, collection plate offerings have doubled.
Trustees are willing to see money that might have otherwise gone into church coffers be collected for this other purpose. Church members have embraced the idea. A debt collector has willingly partnered with First-Plymouth.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the community to have the help they need,” 25-year-old Leah Kash-Brown said after that 11:59 service. “And a great opportunity to help out the community.”
Cindy Lange-Kubick writes for Flatwater Free Press, an independent, nonprofit newsroom. This story is republished through the Solutions Journalism Network.
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