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Churches’ fundraising campaigns wipe out millions in medical debts

An IV bag hangs from an infusion stand.
David Goldman
A recent study found medical debt is a widespread problem in the United States.

Several local congregations have purchased and forgiven more than $5 million in medical debt for patients who had outstanding bills – and they’re hoping it inspires others to do the same.

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Canonsburg and St. David’s Episcopal Church in Peters Township started their campaign earlier this year; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon just wrapped up their campaign. Letters should be arriving in peoples’ mailboxes this week and last week letting them know about their debt cancellation.

“We wanted to bless our neighbors….people in our area that, you know, maybe people that you just you'd never meet, but you might see at the Giant Eagle or the Wal-Mart, who, who knows if they're struggling, but God would know,” said Canon Cathy Brall, who leads St. Thomas'.

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The debt cancellation will help people who live in counties in southwestern Pennsylvania, and nearby in eastern Ohio, and northern West Virginia. The letter will be from RIP Medical Debt and will have information about accounts that were acquired and abolished, according to the nonprofit. Some of the funds raised by St. Paul’s will benefit people elsewhere in Pennsylvania as well.

The three churches raised more than $44,000 in total. By partnering with national nonprofit RIP Medical Debt, which buys old debts for pennies on the dollar, then forgives it, the churches were able to forgive many times the amount they raised. In order to qualify, recipients of the debt forgiveness either earn below four times the federal poverty level or their medical debts are 5% or greater of their annual income.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study earlier this year found debt from past medical and dental bills is a widespread problem in America, impacting people both with and without insurance.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.