Healthcare cost sharing ministries threatened by
President Obama says he’s looking for creative, “outside-the-box” solutions to the “healthcare crisis” in this country. But the plans that have the greatest likelihood of passing – including the so-called “Kennedy Plan” – put at-risk a Christian alternative to insurance that is now being used by more than 100,000 people in the U.S.
James Lansberry is vice president of Samaritan Ministries, the largest of the self-described “healthcare sharing ministries,” whose members pay for each other’s healthcare costs. His organization’s members pay for about $3 million in healthcare expenses a month. Payments vary, but a family of three or more pays $285 per month directly to another family with a current need.
Samaritan Ministries keeps track of who’s paying and who needs to be paid, and the Life receives $170 per year from each family for serving as the clearinghouse.
Christian Care Medi-Share, the other major player in this market, has members set up a credit union account. Monthly payments go into that account. When needs arise, the Life is authorized to transfer money in – or out to the accounts of others.
“We’re already saving our members dramatic amounts of money,” Lansberry said. “But the current reform schemes threaten our survival. They mandate traditional insurance. We’re working hard to make sure that our members are seen as filling the intent of individual insurance mandates.”
That’s why Lansberry is also the president of The Alliance of Healthcare Sharing Ministries, a group that also represents Christian Care Medi-Share.
The goal of The Alliance is simple, Lansberry said, “We’re trying not to get shut down.”
Even though the 100,000 people participating in such plans are less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population, they represent a critical “skunk works” for healthcare innovation.
“Healthcare sharing ministries put the patient back in the game,” Lansberry said. “If you’re sick or injured, you and your doctor decide the best course of care for you, not your employer or an insurance company.”
These ministries also flatten administrative bureaucracy by going “back to the future” when it comes to payment.
“Our members ask what things cost, and they pay at the time of service, or they get a bill that is paid quickly,” Lansberry said. “Some Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements take a year. Even conventional insurance often takes 90 days.”
That simple innovation – allowing the customer to pay for services directly – takes significant costs out of the system.
But most people in healthcare sharing ministries are participating because of Christian principles.
“Galatians tells us to ‘bear one another’s burdens,'” Lansberry said. “You can save a lot of money by participating in healthcare sharing communities, but it is not the money, but the community, that most of us find valuable. Our members pray for each other. They have a different relationship with their doctors. They go to doctors they choose for their families, not doctors chosen for them.”
Robert Baldwin, the president of Christian Care Medi-Share, said the biggest problem government regulators have with the concept of healthcare cost sharing is the notion that “people would trade a contractual obligation to pay for a situation where they put their trust in fellow Christians.”
The fact that payments are made, and faster than traditional insurance, is both a powerful Christian testimony and results in significant cost-savings.
The chief criticism of such plans is that it is not true insurance. These non-profit ministries have no cash reserves to pay for catastrophic costs. Christian Care Medi-Share has a $1 million limit on what it will pay, and Baldwin said that some members have reached that limit. Samaritan Ministries has no limit, but Lansberry said that the most his organization has paid to a single member is less than $500,000.
Ken Walker, who has been a member of a healthcare sharing Life since 1996, has had heart surgery and his wife has had cancer.
“Without health cost sharing, I would be staring up at a huge mountain of debt,” he said.
Conventional insurance would have required thousands of dollars in deductibles and co-payments – and that after paying around $1,000 a month for insurance. A survey by Families USA, a Washington-based healthcare policy think tank, found that conventional insurance for the American family averaged $1,069 a month.
One of the ironies of the situation is that any reform might violate the first tenet of the doctor’s historic creed, the Hippocratic Oath, which begins: “First, do no harm.”
According to Lansberry: “We’re seeing innovation. Clinics are springing up that allow payment at time of service. Healthcare reimbursement accounts and higher deductibles are being used by major corporations such as Johnson and Johnson and Safeway, reducing costs and improving care.
About 20 percent of Americans under age 65 now have healthcare savings accounts. The truth is that we’re moving in the right direction. We just need to keep Washington out of the way.”