For some time now, I have been aware of, and from time to time have even recommended, a concept known as Christian medical cost sharing. As Obamacare continues to exact its price on consumers, I've felt compelled to look more closely at this alternative. Before you ask, know that each of these companies (ministries) are specifically exempted from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). So, these are legal, non-insurance alternatives to Obamacare. It is important to note - these are the only four entities that can ever meet the statutory requirements of the ACA.
The ideology behind medical cost sharing is rooted in scripture, specifically Galatians 6:2 which reads, "Share each other's burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ." Hebrews 13:16 also reads, "And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." Simply put, this concept allows Christians to put the principle of sharing one another's burdens into action.
Who are they?
Christian Healthcare Ministries (founded in 1981) http://www.chministries.org/
Liberty Healthshare (founded in 1988) http://www.libertyhealthshare.org/
Medi-Share or Christian Care Ministries (founded in 1993) http://mychristiancare.org/
Samaritan Ministries (founded in 1994) http://samaritanministries.org/
How do they work?
The concept of Christian medical cost sharing asks participants to assert that they live a lifestyle consistent with biblical teaching (Liberty being an exception as they accept people of a variety of faiths, as well as sexual orientations). In general, however, if participants are living a more Christ-like lifestyle, it is reasonable to assume they will have less health issues - resulting in lower costs for everyone. And, that is a good thing, right? These plans also have significantly lower overhead and no profit incentive which helps keep your monthly costs down too.
Are there deductibles?
All of the plans require participants to bear personal responsibility for some portion of their medical costs - the equivalent of an insurance deductible - albeit much lower than most deductibles. Liberty and CHM both have individual and family annual amounts (as low as $500/$1500 per year), Medi-Share has only a household annual amount (as low as $1,250) and Samaritan requires that the participant cover the first $300 of each incident of care. That being said, discounts that you negotiate with your doctor or medical facility ordinarily count toward that personal responsibility amount, which is certainly NOT the case with traditional insurance. Once that amount has been met, the additional amount is "shared" with other members for payment.
How are premiums handled?
While medical cost sharing providers do not charge premiums as an insurance company does, they assign each household an amount to "share" each month. The monthly pool of shares submitted by all participants is used to satisfy the needs shared by participants during that month. How they handle the exchange differs from company to company, with some having participants sending their "share" directly to another participant. At least one establishes a "share account" to which you deposit your share, which is then distributed to meet other's needs. Those who fail to share monthly as scheduled are not eligible to share their own needs when they arise, so there are no free-loaders.
Can I choose my own doctor or provider?
All but one of the plans allow you to choose your own doctors and hospitals (Medi-Share is a PPO). You simply see your medical provider, negotiate a lower price (often 40% or more lower when you advise that you are "self-pay"), obtain a receipt, submit it to your sharing provider and await the payment, which ordinarily arrives within 30-60 days.
Are there limits to coverage?
Each of the plans have per incident limitations, which range from $125,000 to $250,000. But, for a small increase in monthly share, the limits can be extended to $1 million per incident (Liberty) or UNLIMITED with any of the other three.
How does the monthly cost compare to traditional insurance?
Even the most gold-plated family plans (extended benefits, maximum limits and lowest personal responsibility amounts) run less than $485 per month at all but Medi-Share, which tops out around $650. Gold-plated individual rates range from $162 (CHM) to $344 (Medi-Share). One of the programs, Samaritan, also boasts single-parent rates.
Are they large enough to survive?
Just like in insurance, anytime you discuss sharing costs, there must be a pool of people (participants) with whom to share those costs. The size of the pool of participants is an important factor in deciding on a sharing plan. If you are sharing with a relatively small pool of participants, there is considerably higher risk that the funds remitted in a given month may not be sufficient to cover all the needs that arise. Only one of the four plans (Liberty) is small enough to be concerned. With around 3,000 participants, Liberty is tiny compared to its big brothers - Medi-Share (82,000+), CHM (100,000+) and Samaritan (120,000+). Liberty has also shared just $20 million since its founding in 1988, compared to around $1 billion each for the other organizations. Samaritan, for example, shares more in three months than Liberty has in its entire history. From a size perspective, I would be concerned about Liberty. Each of the other organizations have demonstrated, over time, that they are large enough to handle whatever comes along.
So, what is the bottom line?
To simplify things a bit, I'd like to eliminate the lessor choices and focus on the strongest alternatives. First, I would eliminate Liberty for two specific reasons - their loose adherence to biblical teaching (inclusion of other faiths and inclusion of lifestyles that are clearly anti-biblical), and their size which poses considerable risk to participants. I would also eliminate Medi-Share because of their prohibitive and non-competitive "pricing", which is as much as 45% higher than the others, and due to the PPO structure.
After elimination of Liberty and Medi-Share, we are left with CHM and Samaritan. With these two, pricing is relatively similar. The fundamental differences lie between first-dollar (think deductible) costs and pre-existing conditions, which are not covered (shared) under the Samaritan program. In either case, read the plan's definition of pre-existing conditions to determine if your situation is classified as pre-existing. If pre-existing conditions are a concern, then CHM, which covers such conditions on a sliding scale, may be your best alternative. If not, then it really boils down to monthly expense and your preference for how your first dollar (think deductible) costs are handled.
Regardless of your choice, CHM and Samaritan both offer an attractive and affordable alternative to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). They also give Christians a real chance to live out a biblical model for sharing with fellow believers. And, there is just something good about knowing where your money is going and praying for those who benefit from it - and for being on the other end of that too.