BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) – It’s impressive what $10,000 can do to help people struggling with medical debt.

Thanks in part to the congregation at Discovery Church in Bristol, several hundred Tennesseans and Georgians are getting letters in the mail from “RIP Medical Debt,” a non-profit that buys medical collections debt from creditors, then forgives the debtors of those obligations.

“We’re just happy that we make somebody’s day,” Discovery member Tim Devault said Tuesday.

The church’s missions team was looking last fall to share what Devault said had been a blessed year financially in spite of COVID when pastor Matt Korell brought forward RIP’s model.

Recipients of the medical debt forgiveness receive the news in an envelope that looks like this.

Founded in 2014 by a couple of debt collections executives, the organization broke into the national consciousness when TV host John Oliver made a large donation that helped pay off $15 million in debts.

But even Discovery’s relatively small gift is going a long way. The church learned from the folks at RIP that their donation had been used to help more than 500 people.

The Tennessee residents who got help had an average of $8,500 in debt eliminated.

Devault said the opportunity meshed with Discovery’s mission.

“We’re just big on being the hands and feet of Jesus and so when they brought something that could help … people in our vicinity who had medical debt, we were on board for doing it,” he said.

RIP’s website details the organization’s methods and mission — it’s able to buy debt for an average of a penny on the dollar — and explains the magnitude of the medical debt problem in America.

But it’s something Devault himself has learned about through his work.

“We have an attorney and he works with bankruptcy, and believe it or not the majority of the people that file bankruptcy or have to do that kind of stuff is because of medical situations,” Devault said.

RIP’s own fact sheet says medical debt contributes to more than 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies.

“It’s something you can’t plan for even if you do have decent medical insurance or whatever,” Devault said. “So people file bankruptcy just because of that, it’s just so overwhelming they can’t see their way of getting out of it.”

Devault is right — the RIP fact sheet also says 75 percent of people in medical-related bankruptcies had medical insurance.

What it does and doesn’t do

RIP Medical Debt doesn’t have the ability to target individual consumers’ entire medical debt and guarantee someone a clean slate.

Spokesman Daniel Lempert said RIP works with third-party credit data providers to find “bundled debt portfolios” and locate accounts it can purchase.

Somehow, RIP is able to limit its purchases of debt to people who earn less than twice the poverty level, or have out of pocket medical expenses of more than 5 percent of their income, or face bankruptcy.

RIP has partners it’s vetted in the secondary debt market — typically collections agencies that buy debt from an original provider/creditor such as a hospital or physicians’ group. Those partners have agreed to sell RIP debt that qualifies according to RIP’s own guidelines.

“Only about a third of hospitals sell their past-due accounts,” Lempert said via email. “So there’s a whole swath of debts RIP can’t access.

Appalachian is listed as one of seven “hotspots” that RIP Medical Debt particularly targets because of the prevalence of medical debt here.

“For this reason relief is random and limited to what we can actually purchase. So some people we help still have other outstanding debts if they’ve visited multiple hospitals or have a chronic condition.”

Many of those people live in places like Appalachia, which lists as one of seven “hotspots” — regions “particularly burdened by overwhelming amounts of medical debt.”

People who donate directly to RIP Medical Debt can elect to send that money directly to campaigns that operate in those hotspots, which also include Arizona, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Utah.

The organization, which claims to have forgiven more than $3 billion in medical debt so far, got a major shot in the arm late last year. MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, gave the organization $50 million — by far the largest in its history.

Discovery’s Devault said it’s a great feeling for members of a church that was facing its own financial struggles just a few years ago after the departure of a pastor and some other issues.

The church opted to begin serving more in the community, and by the end of last year they were trying to figure out what to do with extra money.

“We just decided, ‘we’re just gonna do what we know is the right thing, just try to be the hands and feet of Jesus, just meet, go do something for the community and see what happens, and people just got on board,” Devault said.