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SWFL churches working to pay off medical debt for strangers

Posted at 10:12 PM, Feb 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-03 22:56:32-05

ESTERO, FLA. — According to the Urban Institute, there's a good chance you have a medical bill that's been sent to a collections agency.

That's because medical debt is crippling many Americans, who have a hard time paying it off.

They're people like Merina, from Lehigh Acres.

Between 2012 and 2017, her husband Derrick spent countless treatments for various illnesses.

"He was in and out of hospitals and rehabs...I was his voice, I was his medical advocate," said Merina.

But all of that treatment had meant the couple racked up thousands in medical bills they weren't able to pay.

"We had accumulated a lot of debt...And so the big bills got set aside," said Merina.

Eventually, they lost the couple lost their Lehigh Acres home.

And then after all of that, Merina lost Derrick in 2017.

Unable to pay the thousands they still owed, she thought she'd be dodging bills and bill collectors for the rest of her life.

But then one day hope came to her, in her mailbox in the form of a bright yellow enevelope. Inside was a letter that said all of her husband's medical debt had been paid off.

"Its a hug from god, that's what it felt like," said Merina.

The mystery envelope came from two groups, one called RIP Medical Debt and another called Christians for Southwest Florida.

"They were able to purchase medical debt for a penny on the dollar," said Terry Smith of Christians for Southwest Florida.

RIP Medical Debt is a non-profit who buys up debts at a discounted rate for people at or below the poverty line, then they use donations from groups like Christians for Southwest Florida, to pay off the negotiated balance.

"For one dollar, you pay off 100 dollars in debt," said Smith.

Christians for Southwest Florida is made up of more than 20 local churches who are dedicated to this cause.

"Needy neighbors need help and Christ had instructed us to help them," said Smith.

And since last September, they've been working with RIP Medical Debt to cancel debts all across Southwest Florida, including Merina's.

"It's a beautiful program," said Merina.

The group says they are working to pay off medical debt in all Southwest Florida counties, but they've crunched the numbers and say it will take about $400,000 to get the job done.

For more information about the program and how you can get involved, click here.