$2 million in medical debt paid off

WINONA — A small group of people can have a big impact.

That’s the lesson Reverend Danielle Bartz hoped her congregation would learn when she and pastors from four other Winona-area churches launched a Lenten project in February. This project removed approximately $2 million in medical debt from people’s credit throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“We were talking about how it so often seems like small towns or small churches can’t make a difference,” said Bartz, who is the pastor of First Congregational Church of Winona. “Congregants think their work doesn’t have a big impact.”

The churches raised $15,000 and used that money — with more left over to help expand the project in northeast Iowa — to buy $2 million in bad debt for pennies on the dollar through a New York-based nonprofit organization called RIP Medical Debt. Once the debt is paid off, it will remove the bad credit from those people’s credit reports.

Bartz said debt is the type of funds owed by people who have shown no ability to pay it, with debt being sent to collections and abandoned by creditors long ago.

“It’s the really bad debt that’s on people’s credit,” she said.

“There are people who are drowning in this kind of debt and have no way out,” said Reverend Michael Short of Winona Central Lutheran Church.

Bartz said the project began when pastors — including Reverend Rachel Rosendahl of Grace Presbyterian Church in Winona, Reverend Jeff Franko of Cedar Valley Lutheran Church and Reverend Corrine Haulotte of Lutheran Campus Center in Winona — gathered for one of their weekly meetings. to discuss this week’s scripture readings. But, as often happens, the discussion veered off to other topics, and that’s when they talked about showing their congregations how they can make a big difference.

“We’re a relatively small group of people,” Bartz said.

For example, Central Lutheran is the largest of the bunch, but only receives about 200 worshipers on a Sunday morning, Short said. Bartz said his own church has about 200 members, but about 70 are really active in the church.

Bartz said churches had set a goal to raise $15,000 during Lent and announce success at Easter, but COVID-19 came along and ruined the plans. Yet the churches eventually collected the money and were able to get out of the heavy medical debt of 1,057 households. Each of these households will receive a letter in the coming weeks indicating that their debt has been repaid.

Shari and Clare Jarvis, members of Bartz’s congregation, said they had donated to RIP Medical Debt before, so when churches came together to raise funds, they felt inspired to give again.

“We both had moments in our lives,” Shari Jarvis said, describing business struggles and layoffs in their past. “My husband and I live comfortably. I feel like it’s a good thing to do.”

Short said that even though the debt relief was split across two states, it’s good to know there might be someone in your life who was anonymously affected.

“We probably all know someone who had surgery or had an accident and ended up with medical debt that they couldn’t afford,” he said.

Jarvis said she and her husband see it as a way to pay for things people have done for them in the past.

“We have personally been blessed,” she said. “Money is kind of an accessory. Even if you can only give a dollar or 10 dollars, just give something because it’s what your heart says you can do.”

Charity starts close to home

The debt payment helped 80 families in Winona County and its neighboring counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Houston County, 1 recipient: $333.38

Olmsted County, 20 recipients: $20,158.21

Wabasha County, 1 recipient: $43.02

Winona, 7 recipients: $7,432.81

Buffalo County (Wis.), 4 recipients: $4,737.06

La Crosse County, Wis., 34 recipients: $31,515.08

Trempealeau County (Wis.), 13 recipients: $21,848.84

Totals, 80 beneficiaries: $86,068.40

Comments are closed.