The following was published by on February 13, 2022.

Financial gifts from a United Church of Christ congregation in Appleton, Wis., have abolished more than $866,000 in medical debt for families in West Virginia, the church announced on Feb. 13. The West Virginia households — 657 of them — recently received letters telling them that their medical debt had been forgiven.

First Congregational UCC raised $17,083.33 for the cause in 2021 and forwarded it to the denomination’s national offices in Cleveland, asking that it be used wherever needed to relieve medical debt. The UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries added enough to bring the total to $20,000, which it sent to the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt. RIP then identified the debt in West Virginia and bought it up for pennies on the dollar.

The purchase wiped out exactly $866,734.12 in medical debt in West Virginia. The average amount relieved per household was $1,319.23. Qualifying debtors were those earning less than two times the federal poverty level; in financial hardship, with out-of-pocket expenses that are 5 percent or more of their annual income; or facing insolvency, with debts greater than assets.

The debt relief was spread across 18 West Virginia counties. But nearly 90 percent of it was in two counties in the state’s panhandle, along the Ohio River:

  • Ohio County ($548,175.93 for 375 households), and
  • Marshall County ($227,599.38; 185 households).

A full list of the amounts relieved, by county, is here.

The Wisconsin church raised the money through a special Easter offering in 2021. Those gifts then took their place alongside a series of debt buys the denomination carried out with RIP as part of a two-year-plus campaign. RIP bought the debt in December 2021, then sent letters to the beneficiaries — and in January reported the details of the buy, though the recipients remain anonymous to the church. The letters said, “The funds that abolished this debt were generously provided by the United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in our churches. You are beloved by God and your debt has been forgiven.”

“We are so excited to know the reach of our offering to RIP Medical Debt,” said the Rev. Laurie Lyter Bright, who is in charge of congregational care and mission at the Appleton church. She said the church “is committed to justice and living out our faith by extending grace wherever we can.” “As one of their pastors, I’m delighted by their generosity and faithful response to God’s call toward jubilee justice, and I am also utterly unsurprised,” she said. “This church leads with love.”

The Rev. Sekinah Hamlin, UCC minister for economic justice, said debt buys like this one are reminders of why the UCC’s national ministries have pushed for changes in social policy. These include Medicare expansion and certain health-care provisions from the federal proposal known as Build Back Better. “Medical debt still is the leading cause of U.S. bankruptcies and aggressive debt collection,” Hamlin said. “This reality leads to decisions that cut people off from needed health care. Health care is a human right, and no one should be penalized because they are too poor to be well.”

This is the 10th time in the UCC campaign that the church has teamed up with RIP to relieve medical debt. Previously:

  • UCC churches in Chicago kicked off the medical debt buy initiative in late 2019, in collaboration with the denomination’s national ministries. That first buy abolished $5.3 million in debt for 5,888 families on the city’s South Side.
  • The collaborative efforts continued in 2020, with the Deaconess Foundation and several congregations in St. Louis abolishing $12.9 million; with nine churches in California’s East Bay area eliminating $7.4 million; 122 churches and individuals in the Southern New England Conference wiped out $26 million; and 20 churches in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference forgave $5.2 million.
  • In April 2021, eight UCC congregations in the Washington, D.C., area teamed up with the national setting and the Potomac Association of the Central Atlantic Conference to abolish more than $9 million in medical debt in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and West Virginia, changing the lives of more than 7,800 families.
  • In June 2021, the national setting sent $15,000, money from First Congregational United Church of Christ, Lake Worth Fla., and from a Giving Tuesday 2019 campaign, to wipe out more than $1.3 million in medical debt for 815 families in Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
  • In July 2021, eleven churches of the Southwest Conference abolished $3.6 million in debt in eight Arizona counties, benefiting an additional 1,559 families.
  • In December 2021, 20 churches of the UCC’s St. Louis-based Missouri Mid-South Conference, plus one national ministry, abolished $3.9 million in debt in Arkansas and Tennessee.

In a little more than two years — and with an Ohio debt purchase that will be announced Feb. 14 — the UCC, collaboratively, has wiped out some $104 million in medical debt, touching families in every region of the country in which it serves. The denomination is now RIP’s biggest faith-based donor.

A press kit, including fact sheets on medical debt’s impact, is here.

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The United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination, has more than 770,000 members in 4,794 congregations nationwide. Headquartered in Cleveland, it is a church of many firsts: the first mainline denomination to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly gay man and the first predominantly white denomination to ordain an African American. More on its Justice and Local Church Ministries is here.

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