(RNS) Every time he goes to the doctor’s office, Daniel Eddinger takes a leap of faith.

Stethoscope with a calculator and bills.

Stethoscope with a calculator and bills Photo courtesy of Master-L via Shutterstock

Eddinger, a 28-year-old father of two from Lexington, N.C., doesn’t have health insurance.

But he’s not worried about the cost of getting sick.

Instead of insurance, he says, he relies on God — and the help of other believers — to pay his medical bills.

Eddinger is one of a small but growing number of American Christians who have joined so-called health sharing ministries — faith-based alternatives to insurance.

Health share ministry leaders expect their programs to grow despite the rollout of the federal Affordable Care Act, which in some cases is less expensive.

Every month Eddinger deposits about $400 — known as a share — into an account set up through Medi-Share, a Florida-based nonprofit that has about 70,000 members nationwide.

If Eddinger’s family has medical bills — like those for the birth of his youngest son last year — other members deposit their monthly share into Eddinger’s account.

Otherwise Eddinger’s $400 goes to another family that has medical bills.

“I like that the money goes to other families, and not the pockets of the insurance company,” he said. “You can be confident that your money has been spent wisely.”

The last few years have been good for health-sharing ministries. Medi-Share, for example, had 35,000 members in 2009. Today that number has doubled. Samaritan Ministries International, based in Peoria, Ill., went from 13,470 households in January 2009 to 30,068 households, or about 100,000 individuals, in January 2014.

Tony Meggs, CEO and president of Medi-Share, expects the numbers to continue to grow because of the concept’s faith appeal.

Health-sharing ministry members sign a statement of beliefs, along with a code of conduct that bans smoking, extramarital sex and excessive drinking. They also pray for other families in the group, along with sending money. Health-sharing plans don’t cover abortion or contraception.

It’s an idea, he says, that’s based on the Bible, especially the New Testament book of Acts.

“The early church came together and they took care of their own,” Meggs said.

Health-sharing ministries offer a community — not just a health plan. James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries International, keeps mementos from group members on his desk to make that point.

Last year his infant son spent 11 days in intensive care, due to complications at birth. Along with paying about $200,000 in medical bills, group members sent greetings and prayer cards to Lansberry and his family.

For some members, joining a health-sharing ministry was cheaper then buying insurance. But the new health insurance exchanges, and tax credits, have made some insurance plans more affordable for families.

According to an online health insurance cost calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a silver level health care plan for a family of four earning the median family income would cost $8,290 a year, which works out to about $690 a month.

The Kaiser calculator estimates that same family could get up to $4,728 a year in tax credits for their health premiums. That would cut the cost of the plan to about $3,562 a year, or $296 a month, or about $104 a month less than the Eddingers pay.

Still, health-sharing ministry leaders believe their programs will continue to grow. Health-sharing ministries are exempt from the ACA — so they aren’t involved in legal battles over the contraceptive mandate. That allows members to follow their faith without being in conflict with the government, said Lansberry.

“We are thankful for this island of freedom,” he said.

Health-sharing plans aren’t for everyone.

Members have to sign a fairly conservative statement of faith and code of conduct. They have to be active church members.

And they have to be comfortable with risk.

Rev. Tom Zobrist, pastor of Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, Ill., joined Samaritan Ministries three years ago. Photo courtesy of Samaritan Ministries International

The Rev. Tom Zobrist, pastor of Liberty Bible Church in Eureka, Ill., joined Samaritan Ministries three years ago. Photo courtesy of Samaritan Ministries International


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There’s no guarantee that their medical bills will get paid. The system is based on trust, rather than a contract.

When his son was hurt playing football, the Rev. Tom Zobrist said, Samaritan members paid more than $10,000 in medical bills.

“When you trust God’s people, they keep their word,” he said.

Zobrist also likes that Samaritan members don’t always pay full price for health care.

He doesn’t show an insurance card when he goes to the doctor or hospital. Instead, he pays cash, which often leads to significant discounts.

Medi-Share also negotiates discounts for its members, said Meggs.

Health-sharing plans do put some limits on pre-existing conditions.  Medi-Share also makes some members work with a health coach, to deal with issues such as obesity.

At least one health-sharing ministry has run into legal problems in the past.

Leaders of the Christian Brotherhood Newsletter were accused of misusing millions of dollars for personal gain in the late 1990s and were eventually sued by the state of Ohio.

That group, now known as Christian Healthcare Ministries, is now accredited by the Better Business Bureau’s charity program and files a 990 tax return annually with the IRS.

Samaritan Ministries also files a 990 and makes its annual audit available to the public. Medi-Share, which is organized as a church, does not file a 990 but makes its audit available to the public.

For the most part, the health sharing groups operate outside of government regulation. Nevertheless, in 2007, Medi-Share was banned from Nevada after regulators there claimed it was an unlicensed insurance plan. Kentucky also banned health-sharing groups but lifted the ban in 2013 after lawmakers passed a bill making such plans exempt from state insurance law.

Leaders of health ministries take great pains to distinguish themselves from insurance plans. They’ve also lobbied Congress and state legislatures to keep them exempt from regulation.

“Insurance is about actuarial tables. We are about sharing burdens,” said Lansberry of Samaritan Ministries. “Insurance companies want to protect you from what might happen. We are going to share what already happened.”

YS/MG END SMIETANA

 

 

15 Comments

  1. Great article. Health sharing ministries are great options for folks who want to honor Christ, be a blessing to one another, and enjoy a measure of liberty in choosing what their money goes to support. I recently submitted paperwork to join Samaritan Ministries, and am excited to be a part of this approach to healthcare.

  2. Good for them!
    This pool of money which avoids the Insurance Companies is basically the PUBLIC OPTION most people wanted included in the Affordable Care Act when it was being debated!

    Ironically it was the RELIGIOUS hard right lobby in Washington which wouldn’t let the Public Option happen in the Affordable Care Act! We couldn’t hurt the companies – Gosh no! Not Those ‘JOB CREATORS’ !!!

    And now some Religious groups have decided to coordinate something like the Public Option for themselves. I’m sure they hate Obamacare – but The lack of self awareness is mind boggling.

  3. I am interested in what pre-existing conditions are not covered by these plans? How do they justify abandoning these people? Insurance company’s abusive policys regarding coverage of pre-existing conditions was one of the chief reasons for the ACA,

  4. This is a great article. Im glad to see more options are available for those of us who need an alternative method of healthcare. In my case, medical bill sharing through Samaritan ministries has been not only welcome but very helpful. You guys should check out Christian Care if you’re looking to make a change. http://mychristiancare.org/medi-share/

  5. Earold Gunter

    “Every time he goes to the doctor’s office, Daniel Eddinger takes a leap of faith.”, uh, no, not really. Every time he goes to the doctor’s office, Daniel Eddinger shows he has more faith in the science his doctor will use to make him healthy than the faith he has in the word of his god.

    Those who go to doctors and claim they truly believe that the bible is the word of their god, of course because it says so in the bible, lack the conviction of their faith. True believers don’t need health care as your shepard has provided it for you, it says so in your holy text. It was said to the disciples just before your big kahuna went up to the golden city.

    Mathew 16:17 And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

    So go to a fellow believer and have him lay her or his hands on you, and you will get well. Be like the muslim jihadists who have so much faith they kill themselves; now that’s real commitment, real faith.

    Religion is poison!!

      • Earold Gunter

        Shawnie5, nice selecting.

        Mark 2:17
        When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

        Now why would it be necessary for you to misrepresent your book of lies?.

        Actually, the “big kahuna” was talking about himself, “The great physician”.

        Religion is poison!!

        • What did I misrepresent? You quoted an additional line, but that changes nothing. Of course He was claiming to be the “Great Physician,” but the analogy of course depends upon the legitimacy of the earthly physician-patient relationship.

  6. Well, my wife and I are “senior citizens”. We are also both smokers. We won’t stop for this plan, even though it’s basically a Great Idea.
    I notice no prohibition against drug addicts. Many seniors are , and don’t even realize it.
    We are not.
    Presently, we’re covered by my wife’s plan, through county government.
    We’re probably eligible for , what, Medicaid ?
    Don’t care for that. , either.
    We like the idea , though. More power to ya’ll !

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