The popularity of Christian healthcare plans is on the rise. But what are they and how do they work?
For people looking for alternatives to the rising costs of medical insurance coverage, there are some options available. In addition to short-term plans and fixed indemnity plans, there are low-cost Christian healthcare plans, also known as health care sharing ministries.
There close to 1 million health care sharing participants in plans across 29 states, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries. Though most of the 104 registered ministries are closed groups that don’t allow new membership, seven of the largest groups are open to new members who qualify.
What Is a Health Sharing Plan?
An exempt option under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), these Christian sharing ministries are not insurance and are not offered through insurance companies. They comprise thousands of members who come together and agree to share the cost of all members’ medical bills.
Christian health ministries began more than 20 years ago as a way to deal with the rising healthcare costs in America. Instead of paying the premiums for traditional health insurance coverage, members of these ministries share in paying the cost of all members’ medical bills by contributing a monthly share amount. These monthly share amount contributions are held in an escrow account until the funds are sent to doctors or hospitals to cover members’ medical bills.
Differences From Traditional Medical Coverage
A traditional insurance company contracts with a network of physicians and hospitals to negotiate costs up front. Christian healthcare sharing plans enable members to select their own providers and provide access to discounts, which are similar to those required by insurance companies. The amount of help you get could vary, depending on the health sharing ministry.
Here are some of the other differences between insurance and Christian health care sharing ministries.
Some expenses aren’t covered. Procedures that are perceived as controversial or against the ministry’s beliefs (such as contraception, sterilization, genetic testing, etc.) will not be part of the plan, and pre-existing conditions may be excluded or limited.
Bill payments are considered self-pay. Members submit their medical bills, which are paid as money becomes available each month. Members must negotiate with their doctors to provide a discount and/or set up monthly payments.
Requirements are selective. To join most health sharing ministries, you must be a Christian who doesn’t use tobacco or illegal drugs, uses alcohol and prescription drugs in moderation, and pursues a healthy lifestyle.
Prescription drugs may not be covered. The plans have various levels of participation, but most do not include prescription drug coverage, so you must pay out of pocket or find another means to pay.
Advantages of Christian Healthcare Sharing Plans
- Membership usually costs far less than traditional health insurance premiums (especially for families of six or more).
- These plans don’t pay for certain services the members may object to, such as unwed pregnancy or abortion.
- Members are exempt from any Obamacare-related penalties or taxes.
- There’s no enrollment period — you can sign up anytime.
Learn the Terms
Because these Christian health sharing plans aren’t insurance, the terms they use to describe their services are different. Below are some of the modifications in terminology.
|Insurance Term||Comparable Christian Healthcare Term|
|Benefits||Provisions or sharing guidelines|
|Claim||Bill or shared medical expense|
|Deductible||Annual portion, annual responsibility, annual unshared amount, or personal responsibility limit|
|Enrolled or covered||Eligible for sharing|
|Insurance plan||Membership or healthcare option|
|Monthly fee, payment, or premium||Share amount or financial gift|
Are Health Share Plans Tax Deductible?
The monthly required share amount for membership to the health care sharing ministry is not tax deductible.
Risks With Health Sharing Plans
Christian health ministries can be a viable option if you meet the qualifications, but many of the typical health insurance features you may be used to are not included.
There is no guarantee that your medical bills will be shared by members, and there are no legal protections to ensure that your claims will be paid. The plans also aren’t required to cover the same services that insurance companies must cover, including birth control, dental and vision for children, mental health, preventive care, and treatments for pre-existing conditions. Because there is no contract of insurance, disputes regarding sharing requests are generally limited to an appeals process overseen by the ministry itself. Government regulatory agencies are left out of this process, because those agencies do not have enforcement authority over the ministry in most states.
Because of the limits on coverage amounts, members may need to also enroll in traditional insurance plans for conditions that require long-term management such as Type 1 diabetes, psychiatric disorders, and multiple sclerosis. Ministries aren’t obligated to maintain reserves to cover extremely expensive medical bills, and it’s possible that the amount of sharing requests could exceed the amounts other members have available to share.
Obamacare regulations require that health care sharing ministries conduct annual audits, which must be completed by an independent accounting firm. The results of these audits are available to the public if requested. This requirement helps with transparency and provides members with the peace of mind that the ministry is operating efficiently and within the defined rules.
Are You a Good Candidate for Christian Healthcare?
This alternative way to pay healthcare bills isn’t for everyone. Who can benefit most? Those who:
- Are young, healthy, and do not have existing conditions.
- Live a healthy lifestyle (no tobacco use and minimal alcohol use).
- Are facing unaffordable healthcare insurance premiums.
- Agree with the organization’s belief statement.
- Are comfortable with a non-insurance solution.
Comparing Health Sharing Ministries to Insurance
To help you understand the basic differences between Christian healthcare and insurance, HealthMarkets has created a comparison guide for health and medical plans. It gives answers to several common questions including types of coverage and prices.
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