Secret revealed on who is paying off locals’ medical debts
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Imagine you’re sitting at home after a hard day’s work at your second job and you get a call from a bill collector, but this time, they’re telling you someone wants to pay off your medical debt.
“We were met with disbeliefm and the first couple of calls people would get, they’d ignore us,” said Dr. Matthew Freeman, Steamboat Emergency Center medical director.
“I don’t blame them; it’s unheard of,” Freeman said about a local church’s effort to help the community.
It all started before Christmas when the Steamboat Christian Center was wondering what to do with its annual Christmas offerings. In the past, the offerings had been used to pay off a building addition, and now, the church needed a new cause.
Pastor Troy Lewis had a novel idea and put his right hand man on the job.
“We wanted something tangible,” said Executive Pastor Charley Hill, who helps run the church from behind the scenes. “There are people with tons of resources and others that are just barely hanging in there, so we thought we’ll take our entire Christmas offering from our four services, and we’ll give it to pay off medical debt for local people.”
Lewis described the church members’ reactions.
“They were losing their mind over this and were just so excited,” Lewis said.
Lewis sent Pastor Hill on a mission to figure out how to get this version of “Secret Santa” started, and that’s when the Steamboat Emergency Center came into play. Hill walked into the 24/7 emergency center on Mid Valley Drive and asked for a meeting with whoever was in charge.
“I’d like to buy your debt from you,” Hill told the center’s management and the owners.
Freeman and the rest of his team listened in awe.
“He sat us down, gave us a brief summary of the Steamboat Christian Center and described this amazing act of generosity that his congregation wanted to provide for the community,” Freeman said.
Not only was Hill met with open hearts, but the doctors and their partners decided they’d match whatever the church raised.
Hill said they only expected to raise about $40,000 but the congregation got so excited about the idea, they raised almost $80,000. Hill told Dr. Freeman and his associates they could match the original estimation of $40,000 but Dr. Freeman said no, they were all in.
“What better way to show our appreciation for our patients and community but to match this extraordinary generosity,” Freeman said.
Paying off other people’s medical debts is not as easy as it sounds said Hill, Lewis and Freeman. In fact, it took quite a while to get going.
Hill said the medical staff tried to focus on those local patients who were very late or barely making payments or making small payments on large debts. The church insisted that nobody be told who was paying off the bills, because they didn’t want anyone to think there were strings attached. The emergency center also had to be careful of HIPAA laws to keep the identity of patients anonymous. The patients also had to be locals since giving back to the community was important to both the church and the emergency center.
The idea, first bubbling up from the mind of Lewis, seemed to have been somewhat prescient as the community faces job losses from the COVID-19 crisis.
“Without getting weirdly spiritual, it seems like God knew people would need that money,” Hill said.
In fact, Freeman said there is still money remaining from the fund, as the emergency center continues to target working families burdened by medical bills.
“It’s been an incredibly fulfilling mission,” Freeman said. “We feel privileged Steamboat Christian Center chose us to partner with.”
Dr. Freeman said the individual debts paid off averaged between $500 and $1,500.
Frances Hohl is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.
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