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Christian health sharing provides alternative

December 14, 2018

It’s not insurance, but it’s increasingly becoming an option for families struggling to pay their monthly insurance premiums with traditional insurance plans.

Christian health sharing ministries have been around for more than two decades, but their popularity has increased over the past several years as health insurance costs rise.

Monthly payments for health sharing plans can be significantly cheaper than traditional health insurance plans purchased through the Affordable Care Act, but it’s not insurance so costs for things like preventative care and prescriptions are costs that aren’t shared with other members of the group.

Anthony Hopp, vice president for external relations for Samaritan Ministries International said his organization offers two membership levels and monthly costs for a single person are as low as $100 per month and the most a family of any size would pay is $495 per month.

There’s no such thing as a deductible because it’s not insurance, but $300 is the most a person would pay per medical incident before sharing the medical costs with the rest of the members. There’s also the option to pay $1,500 per incident to lower the monthly per month cost.

The 250,000 Samaritan Ministry members are sharing $28 million per month, Hopp said.

There are about 219 households or 629 people in Connecticut who participate in sharing health costs through Samaritan Ministries International.

However, there are more than 100 other health sharing ministries.

Cathy Politi, a Connecticut resident, participates in Christian Healthcare Ministries, another sharing ministry.

She said she discovered health sharing four years ago when she was unable to afford a plan on Connecticut’s health insurance exchange, Access Health CT.

“It was not hard for me to adjust to the idea that preventative would not be covered,” Politi said.

But she likes negotiating and seeing the costs for the medical services she’s provided. She said her experience with paying for medical services with her providers has been positive and cost effective.

Hopp said they provide members tools and help them negotiate the cost of services with their providers if necessary.

And there’s no such thing as doctor networks.

Those with coverage through the ministry are able to see any provider who is licensed.

“We stay out of treatment decisions,” Hopp said.

However, because they are a Christian organization they will not share costs for birth control and abortion services and there’s also a $250,000 cap on maternity care.

Samaritan Ministries International like all sharing ministries doesn’t cover preventative services or prescription drugs. It has a prescription drug discount card, but members are responsible for negotiating and paying for preventative medical services on their own.

Hopp said a member recently went to the doctor for a checkup and had a list of three or four things he wanted to ask the doctor about. The doctor stopped the member and told him he would need to schedule another visit because all those things are coded differently for insurance purposes. The member reminded the doctor that he was not paying through insurance and the doctor told him “well then we can talk about anything.”

According to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, there are 104 sharing ministries that cover nearly 1 million people across the country as of 2017. Three years ago that number was 160,000.

The industry association said 97 of the 104 ministries are Mennonite/Old German Baptist Churches, which have closed memberships. And health sharing is more popular in certain states. Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, Kansas and Kentucky have the largest number of participants in health sharing programs.

There are 22,399 individuals with health sharing plans in the northeast and New England.

Samaritan Ministries International takes members from all Christian denominations, but they must sign a statement of faith that says they will attend church three out of every four Sundays.

And while those with pre-existing or chronic conditions are welcome to join a health sharing plan, it may not be as beneficial or cost effective.

Samaritan Ministries says on its website that medical conditions that exist prior to membership are generally not shareable. That means it might not be a good option for people with things such as diabetes or other chronic conditions.

“However, if a member’s pre-existing condition appears cured and 12 months have passed since the last treatment (including medication) and symptoms, the condition is no longer considered pre-existing and new medical bills may be shared,” the website states.

Also prescription costs are only shareable for up to a 120 day supply. “Prescriptions for chronic, ongoing conditions are not shareable past this limit, but members have access to a discount prescription card to help keep out-of-pocket costs low,” the website states.

Telemedicine is another low-cost option the ministry offers its members, Hopp said.

Say your child has an ear infection and you need a prescription. He said they can pay $25 to be seen by a doctor through Skype and then get a prescription.

The other difference between insurance and health sharing plans is that there is no enrollment period. Anyone can sign up for a health sharing plan at any time. Enrollment in Affordable Care Act plans for 2019 ends at midnight Saturday.

As of Friday, Access Health officials reported hat 102,412 residents had completed the enrollment process or renewed their 2018 plans. That’s down from the final count of 114,000 at the end of the 2018 enrollment period.

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