Are Health Sharing Ministries a Better Alternative to Traditional Health Insurance?

I normally write about issues pertaining to qualified retirement plans, but health care also plays a major role in our retirement, so I believe I need to address this issue.  I recently learned about health sharing ministries at an event put on by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago based think tank promoting public policy based on individual liberty, limited government, and free markets.

I was immediately interested upon reading the description of the event which mentioned how self-pay patients can find more cost effective healthcare alternatives.  Since I try to avoid solving medical problems through unnecessary and potentially harmful prescription drugs and prefer to take a more holistic approach to health and wellness, I was eager to hear what Sean Parnell, the event speaker and author of The Self-Pay Patient had to say, and I wasn’t disappointed.

For one thing, I was surprised to learn about the extent of the potential difficulty in getting reimbursed by an insurance company.  Parnell relayed a story about his wife’s terrible experience with her health insurance company because of migraine headaches she had been having, which resulted in years worth of wasted time, energy, and exasperation along with mounds of paperwork several feet high!  While a story like this may not necessarily be the rule, I wondered how many other people had this type of experience.

When he finished speaking, I had the opportunity to ask about what someone like me, a healthy 36 year old who does not wish to participate in the corrupt and conflict ridden medical system, could do to protect myself in a cost efficient manner.  At the time, I was paying $163 per month for an individual policy with a $5,000 deductible that covered very little with the exception of emergency care.  And because of the Affordable Care Act, I knew my premiums were going to continue to increase significantly.  In fact, I learned that my policy was soon going to be phased out because it did not meet the requirements of this new legislation, and that I would soon be forced to purchase a more expensive policy and therefore more fully participate in a health care system that I didn’t believe in.  So I was pleasantly surprised when Parnell responded that I could consider a health sharing ministry as an alternative which would be exempt from the fines levied by the Affordable Care Act.

I did some research on health sharing ministries and came across the following information:

http://selfpaypatient.com/category/health-sharing-ministries/

http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/my-money/2014/10/24/cant-afford-obamacare-consider-a-health-care-sharing-ministry-instead

http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/jun/6/obamacare-alternative-exemptions-offer-way-out/?page=all

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-07-08/health-insurance-sharing-ministries/56083586/1

Here are some highlights:

U.S. News article:

“A health care sharing ministry (HCSM) provides a health care cost sharing arrangement among persons of similar and sincerely held beliefs,” the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries states on its website. “HCSMs are not-for-profit religious organizations acting as a clearinghouse for those who have medical expenses and those who desire to share the burden of those medical expenses.”

According to the HCSM, health care sharing ministries currently cover 300,000 people in all 50 states.

Instead of deductibles, participants are subject to annual unshared amounts. For example, some plans pledge to cover medical expenses after a family spends $1,500 out of pocket for their own medical care, while others don’t begin offering benefits until you spend $5,000. However, unlike health insurance plans offered through the ACA, health care sharing plans are not required to cover some medical procedures – including certain procedures the group finds morally objectionable. 

Of course, there are other differences between traditional health insurance and sharing plans. For example, health care sharing ministries reserve the right to deny applicants due to pre-existing conditions, which is in stark contrast to new guarantees offered by the ACA. Sharing plans also often come with lifetime caps on coverage that range from $250,000 to as much as $1 million depending on the plan you choose, and participants are required to pay for their own well visits and preventive care.

Washington Times article:

Typically, a hospital patient paying out of pocket for major surgery needs a long-term payment plan, so when Gary L. Edwards‘ friend paid off his $30,000 emergency hernia operation tab in about a month, it left hospital officials flabbergasted.

Mr. Edwards and his pal are members of Samaritan Ministries International, a “health care sharing ministry” in which Christian members pay for each other’s health care needs through monthly shares.

While most Americans next year will have to grapple with the intricacies of President Obama’s health law and the “individual mandate” requiring residents to have health insurance, Mr. Edwards and more than 160,000 others who use health-sharing ministries will be exempt.

They’re one of nine exemptions built into the health care law, covering everyone from illegal immigrants to prisoners; those who have religious conscience objections, such as the Amish; and health care sharing ministries members like Mr. Edwards.

USA Today article:

Ellery Hunsley doesn’t have health insurance. But eight years ago, when his daughter went through treatment for a brain tumor, the assistant pastor at a local church didn’t worry about the medical bills.

Hunsley paid every bill out of pocket, largely thanks to the help of strangers — people who, like himself, participate in an alternative to insurance, a health care sharing ministry.

Reading this was great news to someone like me, and finding out about Liberty HealthShare – http://www.libertyhealthshare.org, a non-denominational organization, was even better news as I am not Christian.

Here is a sample of what Sean Parnell wrote about Liberty HealthShare:

One of the interesting things about Liberty HealthShare is that they are organized around ethical beliefs and not religious beliefs. Most people don’t know that the Obamacare exemption for sharing organizations must be composed of members who “share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs…”

By establishing a set of ethical criteria that members must subscribe to, Liberty HealthShare has found a way to expand the number of Americans who can opt for this low-cost alternative to conventional health insurance.

Liberty HealthShare isn’t just unique in its expanded membership eligibility. Unlike the other three ministries, they handle payment of medical bills directly. The other three ministries distribute the shared funds directly to the patient (or their family), who then pay medical bills directly.

http://selfpaypatient.com/2013/10/23/liberty-healthshare-a-health-sharing-ministry-for-all-faiths-or-no-faith-at-all/

Because health sharing ministries like Liberty HealthShare have lifetime caps and membership restrictions, they are able to control their costs so members won’t see significant annual cost increases.  As someone who is young and healthy, I am willing to accept a lifetime cap in exchange for a lower monthly sharing amount.  Furthermore, my network spinal analysis chiropractic treatments are very important to my health and personal development, because Liberty HealthShare does not have networks,  it fully shares the cost of 12 annual chiropractic treatments, regardless of which chiropractor a member uses – and unlike having a $5,000 deductible, each Liberty HealthShare plan has a $500 annual unshared amount (like a deductible).  This type of structure is valuable to me because I would not have received any cost sharing at all with a traditional health insurance provider because I would not have met my deductible and my chiropractor was not within the network of my old plan.  And Liberty HealthShare even pays a $50 referral fee for each new member you refer!

Health sharing ministries may not be a fit for everyone, but our health care is too important not to include them as part of our evaluation when making health care decisions.  Here are two excellent resources for those who are looking for information that will allow them to make more informed health care decisions:

http://selfpaypatient.com/

http://www.healthcaresharing.org/

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