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Church Pays Off Nearly $2 Million of Residents' Medical Debts

Grand Rapids First recently paid off the medical bills of nearly 2,000 western Michigan residents.

This week, 1,899 families in western Michigan will receive a letter from RIP Medical Debt letting them know that their medical debts have been forgiven — totally paid off — through a gift by Grand Rapids First (AG) of Wyoming, Michigan.

The total amount the church is paying off exceeds $1.8 million, but through a partnership with RIP Medical Debt, the church only paid $15,000 to retire that debt. Based in New York, RIP Medical Debt is a nonprofit organization that purchases medical debt from collection agencies for a penny — or less — on the dollar and then forgives those debts.

Executive pastor, Doug Tuttle, says due to HIPAA laws, the church does not know what families were selected for having their medical bills paid off, only RIP Medical Debt does. But by RIP handling the selection process, those receiving the benefit aren’t required to pay taxes on the debt paid, which in one person’s case was $75,000. What the church does know is that those benefiting from the gift live at or below the poverty line or have medical debts that exceed a predetermined ratio to their income. They also know the recipients live in the western Michigan counties of Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, or Ionia.

According to Tuttle, lead pastors Sam and Brenda Rijfkogel have developed a heart within the church that embraces the theme, “Find a need, fill the need.” This generous-heart mindset has resulted in the church being heavily involved in missions as well as in meeting many needs in its community.

However, the idea for Grand Rapids First to be a part of forgiving nearly $2 million in medical debt for nearly 2,000 Michiganders wasn’t done without careful investigation. It all began when Sam Rijfkogel was in Texas and heard of a large church paying off over $10 million of medical debt for people in its community. The story intrigued him. What kind of church has pockets so deep that it could afford to do that?

The more Rijfkogel investigated, the more he liked what he learned. He brought the idea back to the church’s executive team to discuss the possibilities. Following more research and coordination with RIP Medical Debt, the church moved forward as this definitely fit the “find a need, fill the need” heart of the church.

“We learned that in the state of Michigan there is about $180 million in medical debts listed on credit reports,” Tuttle reports. “We only paid 1% of that debt, but we hope that what we’ve done will inspire other churches, corporations, and individuals to do this — to work with RIP to combat the medical debt crisis.”

According to the RIP Medical Debt website, the leading cause of personal bankruptcy is medical debt. However, to date, the organization, founded by two former debt collectors, has partnered with others to pay off more than $625 million in medical debts since it launched in 2014.

The news of what the church has done has spread throughout its community, county, state, and even made national news reports. Response on social media has been overwhelmingly positive, many expressing deep appreciation for what the church has done.

Due to the media exposure, many churches have also connected with Grand Rapids First to learn more about being part of freeing people from crippling medical debt. Tuttle says he has a call sheet of churches — numbering far beyond his expectations — that he is responding to.

“We use every opportunity to point this all back to God,” Tuttle says. “We want to remind people, specifically those in the criteria for receiving the debt forgiveness, that they are not forgotten, that God loves them, and that this church loves them.”


Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.