SAN DIEGO, Calif. Five years ago Scott Sorensen and his wife, Alana, wanted to start their own business and start a family, but the biggest obstacle was health care. Although he was covered by his former employer, Alana was not, and the monthly quote to insure her was nearly $600.
“It was outrageous,” Sorensen said.
Then he found out about a health-care sharing ministry, which now covers his family of three for $450 a month.
So when the Obama administration began its push for health care reform, Sorensen joined millions of other Christians who were concerned about the impacts not only to their existing coverage, but also paying taxes to fund abortions.
“ I was afraid of getting penalized even though I had this great coverage,” a Southern California resident said.
But, thanks to extensive lobbying by two of the nation’s largest Christian health-care sharing ministries, their clients will be exempt from the federally mandated individual health care coverage required by 2014. Those who do not purchase individual insurance face an annual fine of $695.
“It’s almost like it’s been a reconfirmation (that we were doing the right thing),” Sorensen, 39, said. “We haven’t had a bad experience with it yet.”
The concept of health-care sharing ministries came to fruition in the 1990s when Christian nonprofit groups began co-ops to help share medical expenses. An estimated 100,000 people use these programs nationally. Although the two major co-opsSamaritan’s Ministries and Medi-Share, which is operated by Christian Care Medical Sharingdiffer in how they assess their monthly shares to members, the overall concept is the same.
“We all operate in a way that brings likeminded Christians together to share medical bills,” said Robert Baldwin, president of Medi-Share.
Families apply for membership and agree to adhere to biblical mandates that result in healthy living such as no smoking, drugs or abuse of alcohol. If approved, they contribute a monthly share, which is distributed to other members to pay medical bills.
In addition to the shared medical bills, members also benefit from discounted rates that are secured by the ministry because of the large member pool.
“It’s the way the church used to be,” member Sorensen said. “This is like one big church and you are able to pull out of this one big pool.”
Unlike insurance, the medical sharing plans do not include preventive expenses such as check-ups, routine screenings, dental work, weight control and elective surgery. Members may pick their own doctors as long as they accept medical sharing programs and also vote on policy changes, giving themnot the government or hospital boardsdirect control of medical coverage.
“It’s kind of the way insurance should be, cover the major stuff and cover the major stuff well,” Sorensen said.
Since becoming members, the Sorensens have used the coverage for their son Kaes’s birth, a miscarriage, and Alana’s surgery for endometriosis, a procedure that cost $21,000, but which was paid by other members in the network.
Although the shared programs do not cover basic or preventive medical costs, members believe those costs are offset by the savings families receive when opting for the shared approach instead of insurance.
“As Christians we trust that the Lord is going to supply our needs,” Baldwin said. “One of the ways we do that is to accept help from other Christians.”
Baldwin added that medical care sharing is also different in that it doesn’t evoke the same sense of entitlement as traditional insurance.
“In Christian share ministry the mentality is more along the lines of ‘every month I’m helping another Christian in need.’”
That concept is fostered by regular correspondence listing medical needs of its members so that they can pray for one another. The emphasis, Baldwin said, is not on the system, but on the people. When Baldwin’s son had an appendectomy, for instance, the family received prayer cards and notes of encouragement from across the country.
“It really puts a person’s face on health care,” he said. “It’s not so much paying another bill as much as it is having helped them with their medical needs.”
Sorensen said his family is grateful for the lobby efforts made through the medical sharing alliance, which was launched in 2007 in anticipation of the push for healthcare reform. In addition to protecting the health care of his family, Sorensen said he was also pleased about the exemption because it protects his family from funding abortion since the final healthcare law did not include the Stupak Amendment, which prohibited taxpayer money being used for abortions.
Authored by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, the amendment was approved in the House version of the bill, but not in the Senate offering, which became the final healthcare law.
“It didn’t take something like the Stupak Amendment for them to say, ‘Hey we need to step up and do something,” Sorensen said. “They did that from the beginning. Now I’m not paying into a pool of money of pay for these things.”
Baldwin said they knew early on that they had to press forward with professional lobbyists. if they were going to protect the programs.
“We knew we needed to make sure that those folks on the Hill were aware that health-sharing programs do exist,” he said.
James Lansberry, vice president of Samaritan Ministries, agreed saying that the sharing ministries are “underknown.”
“I think it’s nothing short of a miracle to get bipartisan support for these ministries,” he said. “They provide an opportunity to continue to be an island of freedom. They provide an opportunity for people who want a pro-life option. It’s important to me, as it is with many of our members, to have the pro-life alternatives. We want to have a healthcare option that is consistent with our values. The pro-life options will be somewhat between few and none when these (federal) programs are implemented.”
Still, both Lansberry and Baldwin warn that in light of the victory, it’s dangerous to become complacent.
“There may be some attempts to regulate our ministry,” Lansberry said. “There might be some attempt to remove that exemption.”
Both vow to monitor any future attempts to tinker with the new law.
“We would jut like to be left alone to practice our beliefs in the area of healthcare,” he said.
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