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RESOURCE CENTER AND ARCHIVES

For some Christians, sharing medical bills is godly alternativecomment (0)

March 13, 2014


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

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 said, 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 what are called health-sharing ministries — faith-based alternatives to insurance. 

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 in 2013 — 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.

Deb Lowery, a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Empire, enrolled in Samaritan Ministries International with her husband in March 2013 after praying about an alternative to the insurance plan they were previously enrolled in. 

Lowery explained that each month, Samaritan Ministries sends its members a newsletter with the name of a specific member who has a medical need. Members then are personally responsible to send their monthly allotment, or share, to their assigned person.

As a member of Samaritan Ministries, Lowery said she appreciates being on the giving end. “I love meeting people … from all over the world and being able to pray for them and help their need,” she said. 

Along with mailing an assigned member the monthly share, Lowery said members also will pray for one another and send cards of encouragement to each other.

Tony Meggs, CEO and president of Medi-Share, expects the numbers in health-sharing ministries to continue to grow because of the concept’s faith appeal. Members sign a statement of beliefs, along with a code of conduct that bans smoking, extramarital sex and excessive drinking. They 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 said, that’s based on the Bible, especially the Book of Acts. “The early church came together and they took care of their own,” Meggs said.

Lowery noted the idea behind Samaritan Ministries is based on Galatians 6:2, which says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

“As the body of Christ, we are supposed to share each other’s burdens,” she explained.

James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries, and other health-sharing ministry leaders believe their programs will continue to grow. 

Health-sharing ministries are exempt from the Affordable Care Act — 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, Lansberry said.

But health-sharing plans aren’t for everyone.

First they are no longer the less expensive option in all cases. 

The new health insurance exchanges, and tax credits, through the federal Affordable Care Act 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.

Second 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.

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

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.

In some cases, they also are able to negotiate discounts for their members’ medical care.

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 — Christian Brotherhood Newsletter. 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.

Lowery noted through the health-sharing ministry structure the medical needs of her and her husband “have been met.” And she added that for those who are interested in enrolling in a health-sharing ministry, prayer is key.

(RNS, TAB)

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