Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Blown away’: Spokane Valley church raising money to help pay off millions in medical debt

Shirley Carroll, left, a member of Valley Real Life, stands Tuesday with Steve Allen, outreach pastor at the church in Spokane Valley. Valley Real Life’s “Joy to the World” fundraiser has raised more than $300,000 for families struggling with medical bills. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Fifteen-year-old Kristal Nieland was going into her sophomore year of high school when she was diagnosed with leukemia.

Nieland spent nearly two years in and out of hospitals for treatments – still somehow finding the strength to attend her senior prom along the way, said her mother, Shirley Carroll. She was 16 when she died in June 1987.

Carroll, a single mother trying to run her own business, not only had to contend with her daughter’s death, but roughly $80,000 in medical bills after insurance. She said she made payments during and after Kristal’s treatments.

Then one day, she got a call from the hospital. Her bill was paid – thanks to an anonymous donor.

“When she told me that I didn’t have to pay this around $41,000, I just fell on the floor in a little puddle,” she said. “I was so blown away and so grateful and so relieved because honestly, I probably would have had to sell my house.”

So when Carroll, who now lives in Spokane, heard that her church would be helping to do the same for others more than three decades later, she couldn’t wait to get on board.

Valley Real Life in Spokane Valley is raising money to help buy off outstanding medical debt owed by those in need in the Pacific Northwest. The church has partnered with a New York-based nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt, which leverages donations to purchase – and then forgive – qualifying debt portfolios for pennies on the dollar.

With still a few weeks left in the church’s fundraising campaign, Valley Real Life Church has raised enough to erase upward of $21 million in debt for struggling individuals and families.

“Just the fact that the donation numbers are high this year reinforces that this is a really cool opportunity and they see people that are really in dire straits,” said Steve Allen, Valley Real Life’s outreach pastor.

The effort marks Valley Real Life’s sixth-annual Joy to the World holiday fundraiser. All proceeds through Joy to the World go to causes outside of the church.

This year’s campaign kicked off during the Thanksgiving weekend, and as of Tuesday morning the church had raised around $210,000, Allen said. The church will accept donations into mid-January.

Valley Real Life’s initial goal was $200,000, which is enough to meet the need of qualifying families in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, Allen said. Organizers now have their sights set on $300,000, which could reportedly alleviate qualifying debt across parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.

That’s because RIP Medical Debt is able to turn a $1 donation into, on average, $100 of abolished medical debt, according to the company.

How it works

Allen initially thought it was too good to be true.

The Rev. Dan Shields, senior pastor for Valley Real Life, sent him an article about how one church’s donations helped pay off millions of dollars of medical debt for those in need.

When a person cannot pay their medical bills, health care providers often send that debt to a collection agency. In cases where the debt goes unpaid after a period of time, providers have later sold off that debt to agencies and other debt buyers.

Either way, that person is still ultimately responsible for the debt, which is reflected on their credit report.

RIP Medical Debt, which works in partnership with the credit agency TransUnion, goes to the secondary market to purchase bundled portfolios of bad debt. These portfolios have traded hands several times among different collection agencies over months or years of collection attempts, according to the nonprofit.

Those chosen by the program will receive a yellow envelope in the mail informing them that the debt is forgiven.

“These families are held hostage by this debt and there’s no way out,” Allen said. He added, “We realize that people are having a hard time and we just want to be a light. We want to share God’s love in a tangible way with people, especially in the middle of winter and especially during COVID.”

RIP Medical Debt can abolish targeted categories of medical debt, such as qualifiers by geographic areas and age.

“We’re very grateful for the hard work of Valley Real Life Church – their impact in Spokane County and beyond will help struggling families by erasing unpayable medical debts,” said Daniel Lempert, director of communications for RIP Medical Debt, in an email. “Especially now, no one should fear seeing a doctor because of a pre-existing debt.”

‘Blown us away’

Valley Real Life leaders planned out this year’s Joy to the World fundraiser roughly a year in advance – back before COVID-19 “was even in the conversation,” Allen said.

This year’s fundraiser has seen approximately one-third the in-person donations of last year. Through a bevy of online donations, however, the campaign has exceeded 2019’s total, which was approximately $154,000.

“Through this whole COVID season, people have been so generous with their time and finances, it’s blown us away,” he said. “It’s one of those that we’re all in this together, so how do we help each other?”

Carroll said she wishes she could be there to see how people react when they get the news that their debt was paid off.

“That’s what I love about this church. They don’t build fancy huge buildings. They invest in people,” she said. “I absolutely love it that the lord is still using Kristal’s story to bless other people after so many years. It’s astounding.”