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Churches, nonprofit cure medical debt for 11,108 Missouri families

ST. LOUIS – Millions in medical bill debt for 11,108 Missouri families have been cured by The Deaconess Foundation, area church groups and RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit that locates, purchases and abolishes unpaid or “unpayable” medical debt. 

Church bodies, including Christ the King United Church of Christ, raised more than $60,000 in donations. Those funds were matched by a $40,000 gift from The Deaconess Foundation. 

In all, a total of $12.9 million in medical bill debt will be relieved. 

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, senior pastor of Christ the King UCC and UCC associate general minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries, said: “This endeavor is the intent of the United Church of Christ to make this tangible ministry of debt abolishment in our denominational regions another expression of the ways we seek to live our commitment to ‘Three Great Loves – Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, Love of Creation.’

“And to call attention to the impact of the failure to expand Medicaid in Missouri on poor families,” Blackmon added. 

More than one in three Americans struggle to afford the cost of medical care, and 43 million now owe about $75,000 in past due medical debt, according to New York-based RIP Medical Debt, which teamed with the groups here. 

The groups bought medical debt in December at pennies on the dollar. Debtees here will receive letters that their debt is forgiven, on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. 

“We recognize access to health care is a persistent challenge for the one in five children living in poverty in the St. Louis region,” said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation. 

“Furthermore, medical debt is a drag on family stability and economic mobility of these families,” he continued. 

As recently as 2014, debt was the top reason for contact with debt collectors, and 59 percent of consumers contacted about a debt reported receiving calls and letter regarding a medical debt in collections, according to the National Consumer Law Center. 

The percentage of consumers who have only medical debt in collections was 22 the same year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. 

The debt also appears and lingers on credit reports and negatively impacts one’s ability to purchase or rent a home, buy a car, secure a loan, or gain employment. 

Medical debt also contributes to more than 60 percent of all bankruptcies in the U.S., including 75 percent who have health insurance coverage. 

Missouri has not accepted federal Medicaid expansion, which the groups believe would help keep families safe from a lack of insurance and medical debt. 

The citizen-led healthcareformissouri.org is gathering signatures to have Medicaid expansion added to the November 2022 ballot. As of September 2019, about 172,000 signature were needed to qualify for the ballot. in November of last year, the organization had collected 25 percent of needed signatures. 

The deadline to submit signatures is May 3, 2020. 

The ballot measure would require the state government to provide Medicaid for people under the age of 65 whose incomes are equal to or below 138 percent of the official poverty line as set forth in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. 

The ACA provided for the expansion of Medicaid to cover all individuals earning incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. 

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in NFIB v. Sebelius that the federal government could not withhold funds from states that refused to expand Medicaid, making it, instead, optional. 

Beginning in 2020, the federal government would have covered 90 percent of the costs. 

According to healthinsurance.org, 933,441 Missouri residents were covered by Medicaid/CHIPS as of July 2018. Should federal Medicaid expansion be accepted in Missouri, 352,000 additional people would be covered.  

Nearly 90,000 people have no realistic access to insurance without Medicaid expansion. 

“People should not face poverty because of illness or injury,” said the Rev. Rebecca Turner, pastor and teacher of Christ Church UCC. 

“We see the way this action can interrupt a downward spiral into a black hole of poverty and can give families a chance to ‘reset’ their financial situation,” Turner continued. 

Eligible individuals for RIP Medical Debt are those earning less than two times the federal poverty level, which varies by state; those in financial hardship (with out-of-pocket expenses at least five percent of their annual income); and people facing insolvency (debts are greater than assets). 

By declining to expand Medicaid, Missouri is leaving $15.5 billion on the table over the next decade. 

If Medicaid expansion is passed, Missouri would be the 37th state to expand it.

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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