Churches in two Pennsylvania dioceses raise funds to eliminate $3 million in medical debt

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Mar 11, 2024

Applauding the ceremonial burning of $3 million in medical debt at a March 10 service at St. Luke’s, Lebanon, Pennsylvania are (from left) Rob Gokey, former outreach chair at Hope Episcopal Church in Manheim, Pennsylvania; Bethlehem Bishop Kevin Nichols; Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan; Hope Episcopal Church rector the Rev. Bradley Mattson; and Mattson’s daughter, Elizabeth. Photo: Steve Doster

[Episcopal News Service] The leaders of two Pennsylvania dioceses – Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan and Bethlehem Bishop Kevin Nichols – on March 10 celebrated the efforts of the Help, Healing and Hope initiative, through which churches from both dioceses raised $30,000 to eliminate $3 million in medical debts of fellow Pennsylvanians.

During an Evensong service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the two bishops joined the congregation as sheets of paper representing medical bills were set aflame in a metal bucket.

“Things like taking care of medical debts … is not merely social work, it’s the work of God,” the Rev. David Zwifka, St. Luke’s rector, said in his sermon. People are liberated when the crush of medical debt is removed from their lives, he said, calling this “the very work of Jesus.”

The dioceses were able to alleviate the burden of medical debt in their communities through RIP Medical Debt, a charity that has partnered with numerous Episcopal churches in recent years. It buys outstanding medical debts from collection agencies for pennies on the dollar and helps people and organizations pay off the debts through donations.

The catalyst for the Help, Healing and Hope Initiative grew out of a medical emergency in 2022 that struck the daughter of the Rev. Bradley Mattson, rector of Hope Episcopal Church in Manheim, Pennsylvania, and the Rev. Jennifer Mattson, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Elizabeth, then 5 years old, became seriously ill and nearly died before being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Bradley Mattson told ENS that even with excellent insurance, some bills that weren’t covered, including a $6,000 charge from an ambulance company that was due in 30 days. “And if you don’t or can’t pay, the debt just balloons.”

Elizabeth now is doing well, he said, thanks to a glucose monitor and insulin pump attached to her body to regulate her blood sugar. But Jennifer Mattson told ENS that the price of insulin has cost their family about $1,000 a month.

They have been able to manage their bills with financial assistance available to Pennsylvania clergy, but they started to wonder how people without good insurance could pay for such a major illness. Rob Gokey, the former outreach chair at Hope Church, told Bradley Mattson about RIP Medical Debt. The nonprofit focuses their efforts on low-income people who have limited capacity to pay their medical bills.

Since its founding in 2014, it has provided $10.4 billion in medical debt relief to more than 7 million individuals and families.

From that nonprofit, the Mattsons learned that medical debt accounts for half of all bills under collection in the United States. According to a recent report, 20 million people in the United States – nearly 1 in 12 adults – owe medical debt of more than $250 each, collectively totaling as much as $220 billion. Low- and middle-income adults and those without health insurance are more likely to have medical debt.

Bethlehem Bishop Kevin Nichols (left) tells worshipers that 10 years after a transplant, his daughter continues to get multiple calls a week from medical debt bill collectors. Listening is Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlan. Photo: Livestream screenshot

For those who can’t pay off their bills in full, medical providers usually sell those debts for about 1% of the total to a collection agency, which then seeks to recover the full amount from the patient, plus a fee.

For Nichols, those collection efforts hit close to home. During the March 10 service, the bishop noted that his adult daughter was a transplant recipient more than 10 years ago. He recently overheard a phone call she received from a debt collector. She told him it was one of the dozens of debt collectors who still call her each week.

“What you are doing, the lives that you are touching, the hearts that you are giving hope to, is a building of the beloved community,” he told the congregation.

Jennifer Mattson told ENS she thinks profiting off someone’s medical debt “is a sin.”

Fundraising efforts began in Advent 2022 with a goal of $2,500, and after raising that, it was increased to $5,000 and then $10,000. Other churches in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania started to chip in, too. Zwifka, a friend of the Mattsons, got his church involved early on. St. Luke’s was started in 1858 as a mission of Hope Church, just seven miles apart, but they ended up in different dioceses when the Diocese of Bethlehem was created in 1904. The two dioceses recently have begun exploring the possibility of reunification.

Both dioceses promoted the effort, and contributions grew, ultimately bringing the total to $30,000.

The church is good at healing the sick, clothing the naked, giving the thirsty a cup of water and visiting the prisoner, Scanlan said during the service, but there are other kinds of illness, distress and disease that go unseen, including the mental anguish and suffering of medical debts.

“I’m especially proud that we have been able to make a significant difference and bring and restore people to wholeness, to alleviate the anxiety and the suffering that they are feeling,” she said.

Bradley Mattson said the initiative will officially close on Easter, and by then he thinks it will have raised closer to $35,000 or maybe even $40,000. At that point, some of the dioceses’ fellow Pennsylvanians will begin to get letters in the mail telling them their debt has been paid in full by The Episcopal Church.

He told ENS that he was delighted to have a celebration of this effort that involved both dioceses. Noting how full their schedules can be, he said, “It was wonderful to have both bishops there, especially on a Sunday in Lent.” Also present with her parents was the Mattsons’ daughter, Elizabeth, now a thriving 7-year-old.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.