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Commonwealth Forgiveness Project launches to forgive medical debt in Appalachia

Posted at 2:40 PM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 17:48:16-05

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Five Central Kentucky houses of worship joined together to help forgive debt for families and individuals crippled by medical debt in the Appalachia region.

The houses of worship include St. Michaels Episcopal Church of Lexington, Central Baptist Church of Lexington, First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Union Church Berea and Temple Adath Israel in Lexington.

"It's an abiding friendship and collaboration that we've been a part of for many years," said Rev. Dr. Mark Johnson of Central Baptist Church of Lexington. "And finding that in our conversations, we care about many of the same issues and recognize that what we need to do is far greater than what one congregation can do."

The five houses of worship are working with RIP Medical Debt to forgive medical debt in the Appalachian area of Kentucky and surrounding states. Through the national program, every $1 donated becomes $100 toward the local goal called the "Commonwealth Forgiveness Project."

Rev. Kent Gilbert of Union Church Berea said more than 49 million Americans have unpaid medical debt.

"29% of Kentuckians are in that category already," he said. "We know that the vulnerability is exceptionally multiplied by the fact that they are already very, very low levels of income and ability to repay. It's unfortunate that medical debt tends to compound higher than other debts as well. Every time that debt is sold to a secondary collection agency fees are often added."

The group of church and temple leaders explained with the coronavirus affecting those with pre-existing conditions in higher numbers, the need for these individuals will only grow.

"While the debt that we're buying now will not be COVID related. The fact is that coronavirus has impacted medical debt," said Rev. Laurie Brock, of St. Michael's Episcopal Church. "I mean, you don't stay in ICU for 17 days without huge amounts of medical debt. And what we do know is that many people who have the worst experiences with COVID already have underlying medical issues. So if you imagine that medical bill on top of medical bills very high, so just in that conversation, we started to think 'This is something that we can do now,' it is something that we hope inspires other congregations."

So far the Commonwealth Forgiveness Project has raised $15,000 which converts to $1.5 million thanks to the RIP Medical Debt organization. Their goal by Dec. 31 is to raise $35,000.

"We are here today as people of faith, to say that we find the persistent and pervasive injustice in health care to be a failure of both our spiritual and social obligations," said Temple Adath Israel Rabbi David Wirtschafter. "We believe that all human beings are created in God's image, that all of us are dependent on our human bodies, and that healthcare is a human right."

The group's hope is that other congregations and Kentucky residents will be inspired to donate to their project.

"It is a simple thing to ask 'Who is my neighbor?' Too few of us actually know the people in our neighborhood," Rev. Mark Davis with the First Presbyterian Church of Lexington said. "The reality is that people have got all over this world made in a holy and divine image, we are called in some way to be neighbors to one another. This program of medical debt forgiveness in the Commonwealth as a way to bring love into action is a way to become a better neighbor."

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