Quite a few churches have chosen to love their communities by relieving people’s medical debt, but one church in Austin, Texas, is doing so amid uniquely challenging circumstances. In the middle of a global pandemic and an economic downturn, Covenant Presbyterian Church (CPC) is purchasing $10 million of medical debt for people in the Austin area.
“We really didn’t want to do it for the fanfare,” said the church’s pastor, Thomas Daniel, according to the Austin-American Statesman. “We really wanted to do it just to do it, especially in this era of COVID-19 when there’s so much worry and fear and uncertainty.”
Daniel made the announcement to the church this past Sunday via livestream. In about six to eight weeks, some of the most financially vulnerable households in Travis County will receive the news that their medical debt has been eliminated.
Church Relieves Medical Debt Amid Struggling Economy
CPC is working with a non-profit called RIP Medical Debt, which purchases debt people have already defaulted on for pennies on the dollar. The church had a surplus from its 2019 budget and decided to give $100,000 to its mission committee. As the committee considered how to spend the money, they came across RIP Medical Debt. The nonprofit has a number of conditions people must meet in order for their debt to be eligible for purchase. Debtors must be facing insolvency, the debt must be five percent or more of their total income, and they must earn less than two times the federal poverty level.
After doing some research, the mission committee found that the most vulnerable qualifying households in Travis County had $10 million in debt. CPC’s Mission Director, Whitney Bell, said, “This money will go to help the poorest of the poor. These are people who have to make decisions whether to pay for their medical bills or pay their rent.”
She observed, “Medical debt is never a result of a bad choice; it’s the result of an emergency. And it can haunt folks for a long time. To be able to abolish that points directly to the call of Christ to love our neighbor.”
The coronavirus has shaken the U.S. economy. As leaders attempt to contain the pandemic, many businesses have been forced to close, making numerous Americans financially vulnerable. During the week that ended March 21, 3.28 million people applied for unemployment benefits, breaking the previous 1982 record of 695,000. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, the Federal Reserve estimates that up to 47 million Americans could lose their jobs, and the country could see an unemployment rate of 32.1 percent.
In addition to being affected by business closures and job layoffs, people in the Austin area have been impacted by the cancellation of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. Tamara Atkinson is the CEO of Workforce Solutions Capital Area, which supports businesses and workers in Austin. She said, “Our heart breaks for the Austin community and everything that’s happened. Starting with the SXSW cancelation, we’ve seen a cascade of companies that are impacted.”
In the middle of wide-ranging financial uncertainty, any relief is welcome. People on Facebook expressed their support for how CPC is helping its community. “I am so proud of my church,” said one user. “What a wonderful and innovative thing to do! Will help so many in Austin.” Another said, “I found this so moving! Thank you to the people who made it happen!”
“We are so happy to be able to really live out our call to be a love letter to Austin,” said Pastor Daniel. “In this time of uncertainty, we are still fulfilling our mission to follow Jesus wherever we live, work and play. And while many things are changing, our mission stays the same. We want to provide hope for the people right here in our community.”