Christians for SWFL partner with national organization to abolish medical debt for over 2,600 local families
After stumbling across a nonprofit organization that was making headlines, one group of Christians decided to investigate further, which recently turned into an effort to abolish medical debt for more than 2,600 families in Lee County.
Mark Krueger of Christians for SWFL said a small group of Christian friends, who live in Estero and participate in a house church once a week, became aware of a movement taking place around the country and decided to look into what it entailed.
Terry Smith said he became involved in the cause because his wife was reading an article about RIP Medical Debt one morning. He said it sounded too good to be true, so he had his wife send him the article.
“I thought, if this is true, what kind of impact can we have on our local community,” Smith said. “We are a house church in Estero, 18 people, nothing big, or fancy. We meet for a couple of hours a week and share together and do ministry together.”
He said after calling RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit organization which locates and buys debt from bill collectors, and receiving a great response, they brought it back to the group as an opportunity to help their community. The group was interested and they all decided to put a team together to really vet the whole process of RIP Medical Debt.
Krueger led the team. For a month they collected data and talked to other people who used RIP Medical Debt.
“We found out they really do deliver,” Smith said.
“By mid-August we had contact RIP and began building a strategy,” Krueger said.
The group soon became Christians for SWFL.
The group first wanted to work on getting rid of medical debt for individuals living in Estero, which soon grew to encompass Lee County, after meeting with a handful of pastors who told the group they were thinking too small, that they could do better.
“We went back and retooled our plan and recruited more churches. It’s starting to grow,” Krueger said. “Some of the immediate individuals that were involved in this and some of the early churches were really helpful in taking this to another level.”
Christians for SWFL raised more than $22,000 by September, $7,000 more than needed to be considered a Dedicated Campaign by RIP Medical Debt.
“Because we were able to raise enough money, the money that (comes) from these churches, or Southwest Florida (residents), every single dollar goes to the purchase of medical debt in Southwest Florida. That’s why we call it a Dedicated Campaign,” Krueger said. “One hundred percent goes to the relief of the medical debt because our campaign is large enough.”
The group was able to raise money through the Christian church community, which stretches across numerous denominations. Churches who are on board have done such things as taken a door collection, or special offering, as well as taking money out of their individual budgets for Christians for SWFL.
“Less than $15 eliminates the medical debt for one family. The average medical bill is between $1,300 and $1,500,” Krueger said.
Smith said a dollar donation can make a difference in a person’s life, a real difference.
“People who owe are under incredible pressure from these debt collectors, they need our help. They are helpless on their own. We find people that really would like to make a difference,” he said. “It’s just steamrolling for us. People just love the story. They find out it is true and if they give small amounts of money, it makes a huge difference.”
The recipients chosen make less than twice the federal poverty level, have out-of-pocket medical expenses totaling 5 percent or more of their annual income or are insolvent where there debts exceed their assets.
On Sept. 6, Christians for SWFL took more than $22,000 that it raised and RIP Medical Debt took it into the market and was able to get as much medical debt that it could get its hands on for less than a penny on a dollar.
The group was able to raise enough money to purchase the debt for 2,603 families in Lee County, which equated to $2,946,000 worth of debt.
Krueger said they do not know who they are helping specifically because of confidentiality and HIPAA.
RIP Medical Debt, which used to be a predatory debt collector, now “empowers donors to forgive the billions in oppressive medical debt at pennies on the dollar.”
“RIP Medical has access to these markets because they used to be in the business. They have the ability to negotiate with bill collectors and purchase medical debt,” Krueger said. “Not only do they purchase the debt and it is being abolished, but they take the step in notifying the credit agencies.”
Smith said when a person’s debt is forgiven, their record is cleansed for their credit score.
“That is a big deal. These things can be on your credit score for seven years,” he said.
In addition, since those in debt are an uninterested third party, Smith said they do not owe taxes on that debt.
“Three big things happen when they get that letter. The debt is gone, credit score is corrected and they don’t owe tax on the gift,” he said.
With the deal recently closed, 2,603 residents of Lee County will begin receiving a bright yellow envelope in the mail within the week with big red letters stating “your debt paid by SWFL Churches.”
“We are afraid that they will see our letter and see it as another notice of payment due and throw them out,” Krueger said, adding that the letter says “your debt has been forgiven.”
He said they hope as individuals receive the bright yellow envelopes, they will visit their website www.christiansforswfl.com to learn more about their group.
“Our hope is that they get connected to the Christian community and a church,” Krueger said.
Also, they hope the individuals will leave a comment and share their story.
“Our goal, once we get through Lee County, is to abolish debt for all 11 counties in Southwest Florida,” Krueger said.
The total goal is help roughly 20,300 families in Southwest Florida, amounting to $28.7 million in debt relief. Krueger said debt collectors can make an individual’s life miserable, so the fact that Christians for SWFL can do this, the Christian community banning together to do this for people, is a real blessing.
“We think one church in Hendry County has probably taken care of all medical debt in Hendry County,” Krueger said. “We are probably 60 percent through the way in Lee County so far.”
Smith said the pastor asked what would it cost to buy $50,000 in medical debt for the residents in Hendry County, the response $5,000.
“We are going to take it all,” he said the pastor replied. “Our church is going to cover it. That is the kind of response we are getting. We buy their debt and send them a letter and ask for nothing in return. We want to bless your life and thought it would be a good way to do it.”