By Nijmie Dzurinko
Did you know that some scholars believe that Jesus died for our debt, not our sins? According to economist Michael Hudson, the word for sin and debt is the same in almost every language. He and other scholars like the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis assert that the Bible is about economics, not the distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism we have been taught to believe. Jesus believed in debt jubilee, the practice of canceling all debts every seven years. He was against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, which is why he was such a threat to the state, and he was crucified, a punishment for political dissidents.
Over two thousand years later, medical debt is one of the leading causes of homelessness in the U.S. today.
Dealing with a chronic illness is bad enough, without worrying about losing your house! The stress of debt and dealing with insurance companies and bill collectors makes health conditions worse. In 2018, the American Journal of Medicine reported that almost half of cancer patients drain their life’s assets within two years and are almost three times as likely to file for bankruptcy than those without cancer, which puts them at risk for early death.
When the fundraising team of Put People First! PA found out about RIP Medical Debt, we envisioned starting a medical debt jubilee campaign. We saw that various individuals and groups had worked with RIP Medical Debt to raise money to cancel medical debt in the past, but usually not organizing groups, so we had to conduct our campaign differently.
RIP Medical Debt uses donations to purchase bundled medical debt portfolios that have gone through collection agencies for months or years. Using third-party credit data providers, it targets debt incurred by people facing financial hardship, and then forgives it. For every $1 dollar raised, $100 in medical debt is abolished.
The great thing about working with RIP Medical Debt is that they are experts at purchasing debt and they handle the fundraising platform. They helped us identify a set of counties in PA situated right next to each other with debt available for purchase exceeding $1.5 million. That is the minimum amount of debt they need to conduct a campaign, meaning that we were responsible for raising at least $15,000 over the course of four months.
There are three things about OUR Medical Debt Jubilee campaign that made it unique:
- We framed the campaign in a political way: as a call for debt jubilee and the universal human right to healthcare, not merely as a charity campaign. Everywhere we talked about the campaign we emphasized that we were raising funds to cancel debt because we don’t believe in a healthcare system based on profit. Following in the footsteps of Jesus the revolutionary, we seek to abolish the very mechanisms by which people are forced into medical debt in the first place.
- We used the Medical Debt campaign as a place for leadership development and developing the clarity, competence, commitment and connection of our own members. Just as everything we do we do to develop leaders, the same with this campaign.
- We ensured that everyone who has their debt cancelled through the process has an opportunity to find out about and join Put People First! PA. We are about organizing and building power among the 140 million poor and dispossessed people in the U.S. today, millions of whom are suffering with medical debt. Every person whose debt is abolished gets a letter introducing them to Put People First! PA and inviting them to join or start a Healthcare Rights Committee.
Ultimately we raised over $16,000 and abolished medical debt for individuals in 20 counties in Western and Central PA who make less than 2 times the federal poverty level, have a debt that is 5% or more of their annual income, or who have already declared bankruptcy. Over 1000 households saw debt relief through our campaign and thereby learned that they are not alone with their struggle, that people are fighting back, and that they can join our ranks.
This content originally appeared in Put People First! PA’s semi-annual newsletter, The Keystone. The Keystone is a great introduction to Put People First! PA, our work, and our community. It’s all written by our members for our own communication and education, and for supporters and new relationships to get to know us better. Each issue features reports from our work, news about our victories, stories about the health care system and the other issues affecting our communities, and poetry and artwork. Check out past and present editions here: Newsletter Archive.