Some 782 families in New Mexico and Arizona are now free from medical debt after a church in Santa Fe cleared their bills totaling nearly $1.4 million.

St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, N.M. | Screenshot/Google Maps

With a grant of $15,000 the St. Bede’s Episcopal Church was able to clear $1,380,119.87 in medical debt for the 782 families who live in New Mexico and parts of Arizona, the Episcopal News Service reported.

“I don’t know if this parish has ever funded a program with such a great impact. We were able to do it because every week we set aside 10% of donations to the church for outreach. Prioritizing service to others is our gospel imperative,” the Rev. Catherine Volland told ENS.

The church worked with a New York-based organization called RIP Medical Debt which uses donor funds to eliminate medical debt for some of America’s neediest families by purchasing that debt at a fraction of the actual cost. A gift of $500 to the organization, for example, can relieve $50,000 worth of medical debt.

“Once we’ve pinpointed the portfolios for those in or near the poverty level, we buy up their debt and relieve it. Then we send relief notices to the benefiting families, and subsequently help the recipients repair their credit reports — renewing their access to opportunities and resources that will allow them to rebuild and recover,” the organization explains on their website.

The Survey of Income and Program Participation shows that in 2017, 19% of U.S. households carried medical debt which is defined as medical costs people were unable to pay upfront or when they received care, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among households with medical debt, the median amount owed was $2,000, meaning half had more and half had less. As of 2020, there were 128.45 million households in the U.S., which means that well over 24 million households in the U.S. are burdened by medical debt.

Census Bureau data on debt for households in 2017, further show that medical debt is distributed disproportionately across groups based on socioeconomic status, demographic characteristics as well as health status of household members.

Some 27.9% of black households were shown to have medical debt compared to 17.2% of white households and 9.7% of Asian households. Some 21.7% of Hispanic households held medical debt.

Though it was not always the case in the data, the more educated members of the households were less likely to carry medical debt. The 26.2% of households found most likely to carry medical debt were those in which the highest level of education of any of the members was some college but no degree.

Only 15.5% of households where the highest level of education of any member was a bachelor’s degree had medical debt, while only 10.9% of households where the highest level of education of any member was a graduate or professional degree had medical debt.

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