With high unemployment and average annual health insurance premiums topping $5,000 per person, thousands are forgoing traditional health insurance for medical sharing plans—programs in which members share each other’s healthcare costs. But while such programs can save you money, they may pose other risks, consumer advocates say.
Christian medical sharing plans are faith-based programs in which you pay a monthly fee that goes toward the medical costs of other members. In return, other members chip in to take care of your medical bills. The programs are not considered insurance plans, and they received an exception from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, so members won’t have to buy health insurance under the law’s individual mandate.
“We don’t do this because we have a problem with insurance,” says Tony Meggs, president and CEO of Melbourne, Florida-based Christian Care Ministry, which offers a medical sharing plan called Medi-Share to approximately 50,000 members. “What attracts people to our program and the other ministries is this idea of how the early church came together and shared their resources to take care of each other.”
To be eligible for such programs, you must adhere to Christian principles. For example, you might have to agree to a statement of faith, attend church regularly, and refrain from premarital sex and illegal drug use. If you have a medical condition that results from what the group considers to be a non-Christian lifestyle, such as a pregnancy outside of marriage, the condition won’t be covered. “These programs aren’t for everyone,” admits Meggs.
Members typically pay an administrative fee and a monthly contribution for medical expenses. For example, Samaritan Ministries International, another Christian medical sharing plan based in Peoria, Illinois, charges $150 a month for singles, $300 for a couple, $215 for a single-parent family, and $355 for a two-parent family. With approximately 65,000 people (21,000 families) taking part in the program, Samaritan Ministries raises more than $5 million per month for medical sharing, says Executive Vice President James Lansberry. The organization then determines where the contributions go, “so I share with one person and that person I’m sharing with may be sharing with someone else completely,” Lansberry adds.
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