WASHINGTON, Mo. — More than one-third of Americans owe some sort of medical debt and we've seen those numbers climb since the pandemic started.
One church congregation decided to do what it could to lighten that burden for people in Franklin County. The mission started there. But has spread much farther since.
Our 5 on Your Side team met with church members to talk about the blessing hundreds of households received.
We spoke with Pastor Aimée Appell of Peace Lutheran Church in Washington, Missouri.
Pastor Aimée tells us, hundreds of Missourians over the past several months found out their medical debts had been paid.
It's all thanks to a project backed by the church in an effort to wipe away these debts during one of the toughest economic times in history.
This is a small church with a big goal.
Pastor Aimée said, "$15,000 was a pretty big ask for us."
So, the church got some help.
"We had heard about this organization called 'RIP Medical Debt,'" she said.
The church collected $14,000, which was turned into millions in debt relief.
"They go out there and they buy it just like they were a debt collector," She said. "But instead of collecting the debt, they simply write a letter to the person who owed that debt and say your debt has been forgiven."
The need stretched beyond Franklin County so the church gave to families from St. Louis County to Buchanan and in between.
At least 824 people had some debt paid off and the aid totaled $2.678 million dollars in relief.
Everyday people in Franklin County played a big part in making it happen.
“I think at least half of the money that we collected came from outside of our congregation and maybe more like two-thirds,” Pastor Aimée said.
Kathy Hurlbert, a member of the church, knows all too well how devastating medical debt can be. She experienced it firsthand after losing her husband to a rare form of cancer.
“After he passed, I was going through and trying to organize, you know, his papers and so forth, and I found among them a bill for $21,000," Hurlbert said.
Eventually, she found a way to pay the bill with insurance.
“It can be overwhelming. I was lucky, but a lot of people aren't," Hurlbert said.
The church hopes this project will spark a much larger conversation about the widening gaps in the American healthcare system and how we can all help one another.
“We're here on earth to care for one another and to provide dignity for one another. Whatever we can do to forward that — that’s what we're to do," the pastor said.