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 BILL-SHARING: The Hesses review paperwork.
Adam Covington/Genesis
BILL-SHARING: The Hesses review paperwork.

Growing in a loophole

Healthcare | In the era of Obamacare, Christian medical bill-sharing groups are rapidly adding members

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

When Obamacare reached its third birthday in March, House Democrats celebrated with reports of the healthcare overhaul’s early achievements: Seventy million additional Americans receiving free preventative care, 3 million young adults covered under their parents’ health insurance plans, and seniors saving $6 billion in Medicaid prescriptions.

Those milestones weren’t reversing the country’s skepticism, though. A Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found just 37 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Obamacare, down 9 percentage points from three years earlier. The Heritage Foundation noted the law’s 18 tax hikes would cost Americans $836 billion through 2022, and that 7 million Americans would lose their employer-sponsored insurance by then. After 2014, Obamacare will make employee insurance too expensive for many businesses.

For all its perceived benefits and harms, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seems to be having one effect that liberals—and perhaps even conservatives—almost certainly didn’t foresee: Many Christians are leaving the insurance market to join healthcare sharing ministries, organizations where members pay for one another’s medical bills. These groups, though not technically insurance, oversee networks where thousands of monthly “gifts” cover members’ eligible medical expenses. Healthcare sharing ministries were increasing in popularity before the Affordable Care Act’s passage, but have seen a surge in membership in the past three years.

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Executives at the three major healthcare sharing ministries— Samaritan Ministries International in Peoria, Ill.; Christian Care Ministry in Melbourne, Fla.; and Christian Healthcare Ministries in Barberton, Ohio—all told me in interviews their new member growth accelerated after the passage of Obamacare in 2010.

Samaritan, the largest such organization and the only one that provided WORLD with annual figures, grew by about 600 member households in 2008 and by about 800 in 2009. The next year—when the healthcare law was signed—Samaritan added 2,000 households. In 2011 and 2012, more than 3,000 households joined each year. The organization added its 24,000th family in March, representing 80,000 individual members, and was on pace to surpass last year’s growth.

“There are people out there who are looking for a pro-life, consistently Christian option, especially in the face of things like the birth control mandate,” said James Lansberry, the executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries. Lansberry said his organization had been growing consistently before the healthcare overhaul: “Rising healthcare costs have been around 15 or 20 years. The Affordable Care Act has only been around for three.”

Howard Russell, the president of Christian Healthcare Ministries (CHM), said his organization has about 17,000 member families, with 7,500 of those added since April 2011. (Disclosure: I’m a former CHM member.) “They’re flocking in,” said Russell. “I can’t say officially it’s [due to] Obamacare, but I can’t say it isn’t.”

Tony Meggs, the president of Christian Care Ministry, which runs Medi-Share, said his group’s bill-sharing program had experienced accelerated growth since 2010, at 15 to 20 percent per year.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a part of our population that doesn’t like the idea of government encroachment into healthcare,” said Meggs. “It doesn’t matter if you come from the left side of the aisle or the right side of the aisle, you’re going to find something in that law you dislike.”

Together, the three healthcare sharing ministries currently claim over 170,000 individual members. (Some smaller sharing ministries exist. One, Altrua HealthShare in Austin, Texas, did not return my calls.)

Among the complaints conservatives have raised against the 900-page Affordable Care Act: It forces employers to pay for insurance policies covering birth control and abortifacients and forces individuals to buy insurance or pay a fine. But thanks to early lobbying efforts, Congress added a loophole to the law providing members of healthcare sharing ministries with an exemption from the individual mandate.

Christians who have recently joined the bill-sharing groups may not be doing so merely to flee Obamacare: When asked, some point to the rising cost of insurance.

Terrell Hess, 32, a public school teacher from Early, Texas, said he and his wife had agreed she would quit her job as a school secretary when they had kids, but the $600 or so his employee insurance policy took from his paycheck each month made the budget too tight. They de-enrolled from insurance, joined Samaritan in 2011, and now pay $355 a month for a family of four, allowing Hess’s wife to be a full-time mom.

When his wife had their second child (a boy) last summer, Samaritan members reimbursed all the Hesses’ hospital bills, including for an emergency caesarean section performed after the baby’s umbilical cord became pinched during delivery. Hess appreciated the handwritten words of encouragement and prayers other Samaritan members offered: “You don’t just get a check in the mail, you get Hallmark cards.”

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