Mel Masengale

Mel Masengale

More than 60 percent of bankruptcies in America have medical debt as a root cause, and the situation is especially dire in western Pennsylvania.

That statement, found on an RIP Medical Debt webpage, sums up what prompted Summit Church in White Township to start a campaign to wipe out such debt — over $1.3 million so far — in 14 western Pennsylvania counties.

“For every dollar donated, they can pay off $100 of medical debt,” Mel Masengale, senior pastor at Summit Church, said Thursday. “The goal was about $12,000,” which could be leveraged to $1.2 million.

RIP Medical Debt is a nonprofit charity, that uses donations to purchase bundled medical debt portfolios that have gone through collection agencies for months or years.

“Medical debt isn’t the result of bad decisions,” according to RIP Medical Debt’s mission statement. “It’s a debt of necessity.”

RIP Medical Debt’s efforts target individuals who make less than two times the federal poverty level; those who have reached a point in their financial hardship where 5 percent or more of their annual income goes to out-of-pocket medical expenses, and those who are insolvent, with debts greater than their assets.

There also are specific programs for veterans and active service members of the U.S. military.

As that mission statement continues, “By forgiving this debt we strive to give struggling individuals, and their families, a fresh start. We hope to give those affected the ability to seek the continued medical care they need and help them back towards financial stability.”

That concept has led to drives on RIP Medical Debt’s behalf in various areas.

“I heard about it from different pastor friends who lead churches in different parts of the country,” Masengale said. Then he heard about it on a Fox News report and “loved their philosophy and what they can do.”

The drive started early last month. As of Thursday, that goal was topped, as organizers could leverage contributions into paying off $1.3 million — including a lot less than was expected in the church’s backyard.

“There was about $45,000 worth of medical debt in Indiana County,” Masengale said. Other debts were covered in Westmoreland, Armstrong, Cambria, Clearfield, Jefferson, Beaver, Bedford, Blair, Fayette, Greene, Lawrence, Somerset and Washington counties.

“We had people make $10 donations,” Masengale said. “We didn’t track donations or who gave specifically.”

And they aren’t turning away donations even if the goal has been reached. The Summit Church pastor said that any additional money raised will be rolled over to help medical debt elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

The generosity does not come as a tax liability to the recipient.

“There are no tax consequences for those whose medical debts are forgiven,” RIP Medical Debt stated on its website. “The forgiveness is a gift from a detached and disinterested third party. (RIP) is an act of generosity, so forgiveness of the (debt) does not count as being income to the gift recipient.”

More information can be obtained either at the www.RIPmedicaldebt.org website or through the www.summitpa.church site.