Christian Assembly Church in Los Angeles Pays Off $5.3 Million in Medical Debt for Low-Income Families

Pastor Tom Hughes of Christian Assembly Church came up with the idea to use parishoners’ donations to wipe out $5.3 million in medical debt for thousands of people in Los Angeles County.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In an astounding Christmas gift, an Eagle Rock church is wiping out $5.3 million in medical debt for thousands of low-income Los Angeles area residents.

Using more than $50,000 worth of donations from parishioners, Christian Assembly Church is working with a debt-forgiveness nonprofit to help erase bills for 5,555 households who earn less than twice the federal poverty level.

Twenty-eight cities in Los Angeles County were selected for the debt-relief program based on neighborhoods where church members live. Areas represented by 15 or more households from within the church community were chosen, including the city of Los Angeles, Azusa, Hollywood, San Gabriel, Sylmar and Glendale.

“We are able to give a Christmas gift to the people of Los Angeles, no strings attached,” pastor Tom Hughes announced to cheers and a standing ovation during the church’s Christmas services last weekend.

RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit started in 2014 by two former debt collectors, uses donations to buy large bundles of medical debt for pennies on the dollar. Collection agencies typically sell debts for a fraction of the cost to bill collectors, who then pursue the original amount. It takes roughly $100 to erase $10,000 worth of debt. The church’s $50,000 donation can forgive more than $5 million for those who owe.

Church member Jean Kellett of Sherman Oaks said when she learned of the debt-relief plans during Sunday’s service, she wept.

“Everyone was really touched. Tears began streaming,” said Kellett, who has been attending Christian Assembly Church since 2003. “There wasn’t any better expression of Christmas than what they have done.”

Hughes said that as a church leader, he has seen how debt can weigh on people. Medical bills can add up for those without — or even with — health insurance and often are a contributing factor to personal bankruptcy and homelessness.

When a pastor in Baltimore told Hughes, 45, about RIP Medical Debt, he reached out to the group and created a plan that would allow the church’s donations to help a multitude of L.A. County residents. In 2016, the debt-forgiveness organization worked with “Last Week With John Oliver” to erase $15 million worth of medical debt for 9,000 people.

“Basically, every person I’ve ever met has probably known someone who has a medical condition that’s come out of the blue,” Hughes said.

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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times, Colleen Shalby