As health insurance premiums continue to skyrocket, a growing number of Americans are turning to faith-based health plans to meet their medical costs.
More Americans Joining Faith-Based Health Plans
A faith-based health plan, also known as a health-sharing ministry, is not health insurance; it’s an alternative to health insurance. In these plans, members share costs with like-minded individuals.
The model has seen significant growth over the past several years. The growth has been strongest in the four main health-sharing ministries. Three of those ministries, Samaritan Ministries, Medishare, Christian Healthcare Ministries, make up the Alliance of Health Sharing Ministries.
The Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries shared the growth over the past five years in these three ministries.
2011: 100,000 total members
2016: 600,000 total members
2017: 800,000 total members.
These numbers do not include the 63,000 households enrolled in Liberty HealthShare, the fourth major health sharing ministry. Nor do they include the hundreds of local churches that also offer faith-based health plans. Altogether, more than 1 million Americans share medical costs as members of a faith-based plan.
We spoke with the representatives from the major health-sharing ministries to understand why so many Americans are choosing health sharing over health insurance.
Reasons Why People Are Joining Faith-Based Health Plans
1. Religious Reasons
The most obvious reason for joining faith-based health plans is a deeply religious one. For people of faith, sharing healthcare costs with like-minded individuals who hold similar fundamental beliefs is of the utmost importance. When you are part of a health-sharing ministry you know that the money you contribute is supporting health procedures you support.
“It really has to do with the philosophy. Health sharing is freedom from health insurance,” says Dale Bellis, executive director of Liberty HealthShare. “People join together for shared values and religious beliefs.”
While Liberty Health is open to people of all faiths, other health-sharing ministries such as Samaritan Ministries focus on Christians specifically.
“Our focus is on Christians sharing the burdens of other Christians, both spiritually and financially” writes a spokesperson from Samaritan Ministries in an email to HealthCare.com.
The differences between faith-based health plans and health insurance go beyond faith. It’s the entire community-based approach to paying for health care that has drawn so many people to these plans. The whole idea of sharing healthcare costs takes the entire model of health insurance and turns it on its head. Instead of sending your money to a health insurance company that pools the money and then pays the money out, your share is going directly to cover someone’s healthcare costs.
“What makes health sharing different is that it’s a community-based approach to meeting medical needs,” says Medishare director of communications Michael Gardner. “I know with whom I’m sharing with every month and I can communicate with them. I know whose burdens I share.”
3. More Flexibility Over Your Healthcare
Most health-sharing ministries don’t limit choice when it comes to selecting treatment options or medical providers. This allows for the kind of freedom that isn’t possible with health insurance. It shifts the decision-making power from an insurance company to the patient.
“One of the big reasons that people join is the flexibility,” says Joel Noble, the vice president of the Alliance of Health Sharing Ministries. “Since it’s not insurance, it allows them to make their own decision with their healthcare dollars. They don’t have to go to particular networks and it allows them to price shop.”
Similarly, a Samaritan Ministries spokesperson added “you are in charge of your health care decisions without a middleman between you and your doctor.”
4. Simple and Transparent Process
Confusing terms like monthly premiums and annual deductibles are absent from conversations about faith-based health plans. Instead, health-sharing ministries use simpler terminology such as “monthly sharing amounts” and “annual sharing responsibility”.
“We are very conscious that we are not health insurance, so we speak in different terms.; we use an entirely different lexicon,” notes Bellis.
While these terms may be easier to understand than insurance terms, consumers should still inform themselves of what the sharing terms mean before shopping for a faith-based plan.
“We find that a lot of people don’t understand insurance terms, so there is a bit of education that does go into this. Medishare offers great information that can help explain to people how sharing works,” says Gardner.
Low costs are what initially attracts many consumers to consider joining faith-based health plans in the first place. Fewer regulations and administrative costs helps drive down prices for faith-based plans and can lead many families to significant savings.
“First of all, we are very affordable. Monthly sharing amounts are only around $330 per month[…]This has a long term impact. More and more people are taking their savings and using it to support churches, go back to school, adopt children or have another child all because of less financial uncertainty,” says Gardner.
6. Uncertainty on Exchanges Is Fueling Growth
The unstable insurance market, particularly the state exchanges, have provided additional incentives to consumers to look for alternatives to insurance. Many of the counties at risk of having just one or no insurers in the marketplace are the ones where growth in faith-based plans has been the highest. Noble explains:
“It does have an impact in places like Tennessee where insurance companies are pulling out of the marketplace. Metro Memphis-Knoxville area, for example, has only one provider. In some of these states, there’s not going to be any insurance company at all. This creates opening for more people looking at healthcare sharing.”
7. Avoid Obamacare Penalty
A key provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the individual mandate. The requirement to purchase health insurance has driven many Americans to choose between purchasing expensive health insurance or paying the penalty. Health-sharing ministries offer a way out of that binary choice.
Health-sharing ministries were grandfathered into the ACA and written directly into the ACA as an exception. This means that the four main health-sharing ministries are not required to cover the essential benefits mandated by Obamacare, such as preventative care, mental health treatment, or pre-existing conditions. This also means that its members do not have to pay the penalty of not having this coverage.
The ACA’s exemption for healthsharing ministries has played a significant role in its growing membership, says Gardner:
“The trend of strong growth goes back to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Even though health sharing ministries are not health insurance, they do meet the individual mandate so members are not subject to the penalty.”
8. Health-Sharing for the Sharing Economy
When economists discuss the “sharing economy” they are usually referring to mobile applications such as Uber and Airbnb. Few, if any, consider health-sharing ministries as part of the growing trend in society towards peer-to-peer transactions and social sharing. However, it’s clear from the leadership of faith-based plans that their model is striking a chord within this societal framework.
“It definitely resonates with that share economy,” says Bellis.
Noble makes the connection between health-sharing and the ride-sharing giant Uber, although he cautioned against taking the comparison too far:
“We joke that we were uber before uber came around. It’s not so simple as uber for healthcare but it does correlate with a rise in that type of community sharing.”
Medishare has used ride-sharing services like Uber as a positive example of ways to improve the consumer experience, according to Gardner.
“That’s kind of the way that we think of ourselves. We look at other sharing industries to see how can we do this differently to make this experience better for members.”
9. Using a Proven Model
Health-sharing ministries stretch back way before Uber or Airbnb. The concept first started gaining traction around 20 to 30 years ago.
“While the concept of sharing may be new to some, Samaritan members have been sharing medical needs for over 22 years,” according to a Samaritan Ministries spokesperson.
In fact, one can argue that the health sharing model is 2,000 years old with a proven track record of success. Noble makes that argument:
“Health sharing actually goes all the way back to the early church.”
10. Innovative Programs
While the model may be based on 2,000 year-old scripture, the services are truly cutting-edge.
Liberty HealthShare offers an innovative program called HealthTrac that takes a holistic approach to healthcare for members with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or obesity. For a small additional cost of $80 per month, a member is given a lifestyle coach who helps set attainable healthcare goals and realistic life changes. According to Bellis, it’s been a huge success:
“Something came across my desk recently of a man who expressed in heartfelt terms how HealthTrac totally changed his life. It reversed quality of his life and extended years of his health on earth. All we did was offer an opportunity.”
Meanwhile Medishare runs a novel telehealth program known as MD Live. MD Live provides 24/7 access to physicians via phone or video for non-emergencies. Members log on to their account via an app or website, select the appropriate doctor and immediately have virtual access to a doctor. The doctor can then listen to reported symptoms and offer actionable advice or prescribe medication to be picked up at a local pharmacy.
These fresh solutions to healthcare not only increase outcomes for members but reduce costs over time.
What Else Should You Know About Faith-Based Health Plans?
It’s Not Health Insurance: Before you decide on a faith-based plan, it is important to know that these plans are not right for everyone. Since you’re not insured, there is never a guarantee of healthcare coverage. In addition, health-sharing generally covers unexpected costs; annual costs, such as yearly physicals or preventative care will be up to you to cover. Lastly, depending on the faith-based health plan, you may be charged more for pre-existing conditions.
Read the Statements of Faith for Each Plan: Selecting the right faith-based plan for you will comes down to several factors, including differing costs and ideologies. All health-sharing ministries have different philosophies and different religious affiliations. Read the statements of faith for each ministry to find out which plan lines up best with your personal beliefs.
Costs Vary Widely: Health-sharing amounts and annual sharing responsibilities also differ by plan. Some plans require you to contribute more towards your own healthcare costs while other plans are more generous in terms of coverage but carry higher monthly sharing amounts. Learn the different costs breakdowns by plan to determine which plan is most appropriate given your financial circumstances.
The ministries themselves show a refreshing amount of humility when explaining the advantages they offer compared to their competition. When asked why consumers should go with Liberty HealthShare over another faith-based health plan, Bellis says humbly:
“We do have a bit of a different mission than the other health sharing ministries. But we bless them and thank God for them.”