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Texas church helps residents pay $18 million in past-due medical bills

Highland Baptist Church in Waco, Texas filled benevolence jars with the slogan “The Debt’s Been Paid” to raise enough money to retire more than $18 million in unpaid medical debt in its surrounding community.

WACO, Texas (BP) – Adam Kovach spent much of his childhood in hospital waiting rooms while his father battled terminal brain cancer. The family struggled to pay the medical debt on his mother’s salary as a teacher.

Those memories spurred Kovach, a freshman at Truett Theological Seminary, to help Highland Baptist Church retire an estimated $18 million or more in delinquent medical debt owed by Waco area residents.

Seminary student Adam Kovach ran 300 miles to raise $4,000 towards Highland Baptist Church’s outreach that covered more than $18 million in unpaid and unpayable medical debt owed by Waco-area residents.

Kovach ran 300 miles in about three weeks, with pledges of 25 cents a mile bringing in $4,000 towards the church’s total haul of $180,000. The charity RIP Medical Debt stretched the money by buying portfolios of largely uncollectable medical bills and retiring the debt for about a penny on the dollar.

“It was brutal,” said Kovach, who more than tripled his usual weekly mileage to raise the cash. “It was one of the toughest things I’ve done.”

Under the slogan “The Debt’s Been Paid,” the congregation raised $180,000 in three weeks before Easter, far surpassing the $75,000 goal, according to John Durham, Highland’s senior pastor. Highland’s 3,100 members – about one-third college students – gave personal checks, weekly allowances, piggy bank savings and donations collected at part-time jobs.

“Just tying it into our spiritual debt being paid, even though it was an accurate debt that had rightly been built up against us, Jesus stepped in and paid that for us,” Durham said. “So as resurrected people, what would it look like for us to step in, in the middle of other people’s financial debt that was accurately built up against them, and free them from that?

“Definitely a lot of people gave because they remember times in their lives or times in their parents’ lives where there was medical debt that was oppressive and daily a stressor for them.”

Two former debt collectors launched the New York-based nonprofit RIP Medical Debt in 2014, working to purchase and abolish unpaid and unpayable medical debt for people who can’t afford to pay. The company buys debt portfolios “at a steep discount, on average a penny on the dollar,” according to its website, to pay the bills that have typically passed through several collection agencies. The agency said it retired $120 million in medical debt in the first four years of its operation, with $100 typically covering a $10,000 debt.

Adam Kovach ran the last day of his challenge in a hospital robe to emphasize the need to help those suffering from debilitating medical debt. He made a collage featuring the many people who donated quarters to his cause.

In four to six weeks, many Waco-area residents will receive letters from RIP Medical Debt informing them that their debt has been paid by Highland Baptist Church, sharing the church’s web address and a brief statement that the church is praying for them. Highland doesn’t know the names of the recipients, whose identities are protected as part of the program.

“I’ve heard from the RIP Medical group that we will get some emails, that they also get a lot of response, and they will send us – with redacted names – of here’s what families want to pass on to you,” Durham said. “It was important for us to help our surrounding community, just so there might be a connect for them to hear more about Christ or be able to connect into our church.”

Highland does an Easter outreach annually. In previous years, the church supported Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls and funded the construction of water wells in Ghana.

Highland members were “super excited” to surpass their goal this year as communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, Durham said.

“I think everyone’s been more aware of medical debt and maybe COVID-related medical debt, so I think it was a very timely issue for our people to want to step in and help those in our community,” he said.

Kovach, a Master of Divinity student, said he was praying for a personal mechanism to raise money for the outreach when God pointed out his hobby of running.

“The Bible says your body is a temple, and Paul talks a lot about run the race,” Kovach said. “For me personally, when I go running a lot of it is to connect with God. A lot of that is for my personal quiet time.”

People in the community not only followed Kovach on social media, but would sometimes join him for portions of his treks, sometimes biking alongside him as he ran.

He ran the last day of the challenge in a hospital gown to emphasize the need to help those suffering from debilitating medical debt.

“I want more churches to be doing stuff like this,” Kovach said. “I know what it’s like to be a part of a family that doesn’t know how they’re going to make ends meet. Medical bills are crippling. … It’s like a ‘we have to pay those bills and now we can’t afford to eat’ kind of thing.”