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St. Louis churches buy up $12.9 million in medical debt, then give it away

St. Louis churches buy up $12.9 million in medical debt, then give it away

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FLORISSANT — In a broader effort to push for Medicaid expansion in Missouri, United Church of Christ congregations and the Deaconess Foundation on Saturday announced they’d paid pennies on the dollar for $12.9 million in medical debt that they are giving away.

More than 11,000 families from across dozens of ZIP codes in St. Louis and St. Louis County will receive yellow envelopes in the mail this week notifying them that lingering medical bills have been paid. The average reimbursement is $1,166.

“Please note that we only addressed those who are living at or below poverty — people who should not have to worry about the cost of health care anyway,” the Rev. Traci Blackmon told a gathering at Christ the King United Church of Christ in north St. Louis County.

Blackmon challenged Gov. Mike Parson’s recent assertion that the economy is good. She alluded to a Good Samaritan theme that Martin Luther King Jr. often employed in speeches, saying the charitable campaign should “sound the alarm about our Jericho Road in health care.”

“In St. Louis, as we celebrate new sports teams and new businesses and new entertainment venues and new tourist attractions, we do so as our governor and elected officials avoid addressing our Jericho Road and declare that our region is strong,” she said.

“Well, Mr. Governor, our region is not strong as long as we ignore more than 100,000 families who have been dropped from Medicaid rolls over the past three years. Our region is not strong as long as health care costs spiral out of control.”

Fourteen UCC congregations raised about $60,000 and the Deaconess Foundation matched $40,000 for the campaign. With the help of RIP Medical Debt, a New York-based nonprofit organization, the money bought $12.9 million in debt relief that typically would have been purchased by a debt collection company.

The Rev. Starsky Wilson, president of the Deaconess Foundation, described the effort as “good philanthropy” because it addresses the need for “systems change.” He said the loss of health care and ballooning costs are keeping people in poverty.

“How better could our $40,000 have been invested in campaigns in this community?” he said. “How better could the churches of the United Church of Christ have spent the more than $60,000 that they have invested in this campaign? How better could $12.9 million be put on purpose in our community so that our children live in a better world?”

Teara Norris, 34, one of the recipients, said she wasn’t aware how much of her debt was going to be forgiven, but she owes about $10,000, mainly for frequent hospital stays and blood transfusions. She said she was born with sickle cell anemia, a blood cell disorder.

“I feel like it’s going to be a life-changer for me and my family,” said Norris, of St. Louis, who has two children. “I am going to be able to not worry and stress about the medical bills that I have. … It’s going to prepare me to take care of my family.”

The Rev. James Ross, pastor of Pilgrim Congregational Church in St. Louis, said he sees the need when a nurse shows up to help those in the food pantry line.

“For some people that is the only access to medical care that they have, and that is a shame in the wealthiest country in the world,” Ross said. “So at Pilgrim, we were overjoyed to contribute to this. … We know that this matters to the 11,000 families who are involved, and yet we know that there is much more to do because while this helps, it does not transform the system.”

Rick Stevens, president of Christian Hospital, said at the event that a family of three must earn less than $4,500 to qualify for Medicaid in Missouri. He said he supports expanding Medicaid and asking voters to do so in November.

“It can be done,” he said, mentioning similar efforts in Montana and Kansas.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, also at the announcement, said afterward that entrenched politics from the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, is the main obstacle.

He said medical debt is crushing families and limiting futures across Missouri. He said he was alarmed by hospitals closing in rural areas. More people are traveling hundreds of miles, often to St. Louis, to get adequate health care.

“That’s why I think we will be able to sell this issue throughout the state — rural, urban and suburban,” he said of expanding Medicaid.

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