Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of health care sharing ministries as an alternative to conventional health insurance.
If you aren’t familiar with sharing ministries, the concept is fairly straightforward. They are voluntary associations of people, typically Christian in nature, who agree to share one another’s medical bills. Members pay a set amount each month, and those funds are used to pay medical bills of members (typically referred to as “needs”). There are a few variations on the theme – at Samaritan Ministries, for example, members send the funds directly to their fellow members, while at others the money may be sent to the ministry’s central office for distribution – but the general concept is the same.
The ministries typically have what they call a “personal responsibility” amount, which is similar to a deductible in that members are expected to take care of that portion of medical bills before turning to the ministry. And a number of ministries also offer services such as nurse hotlines and bill negotiation.
Despite looking somewhat like health insurance, they are not insurers. The biggest distinction, at least from a legal standpoint, is that there are no guarantees that any particular member’s medical bills will be paid. As I like to say, they are faith-based in two critical ways – first, they are based on Christian faith and the Biblical injunction to “bear one another’s burdens,” and second, members truly are placing their faith in the goodwill and generosity of their fellow members to cover their medical bills.
This sounds dicey to some, and if you’re of the cynical variety you may not think this sounds like a very good deal. Such ministries have existed and generally done well at fulfilling their mission for decades, and at this point hundreds of thousands of Americans (myself included) have opted for this alternative to conventional health insurance. But for a variety of reasons it isn’t for everyone, and if it’s too much of a leap of faith for some people, then there are other options that are probably a better fit.
In the past I’ve written about the five health care sharing ministries I was familiar with: Samaritan, Christian Healthcare Ministries, Christian Care Ministry, Altrua Healthshare, and Liberty HealthShare.
Two new* sharing ministries have come to my attention recently, Solidary HealthShare and Medical Cost Sharing, Inc., so I thought I’d provide a little information on them in two separate posts.
Solidarity HealthShare was created specifically for practicing Catholics. While to the best of my knowledge all of the ministries welcome Catholics, by and large they are rooted in Protestant traditions and understandings (Altrua began as a ministry focused on Mormons). This isn’t a theology blog so I’ll just note that in the past I have heard of some Catholics expressing reservations about certain language often used by the ministries that was, at least to them, problematic.
Here is how Solidarity HealthShare describes their mission:
Pope John XXIII addressed in his encyclical Mater et Magistra the vast field for personal charity which would absolutely include health cost sharing. He wrote: “Tragic situations and urgent problems of an intimate and personal nature are continually arising which the State with all its machinery is unable to remedy or assist. There will always remain, therefore, a vast field for the exercise of human sympathy and the Christian charity of individuals. We would observe, finally, that the efforts of individuals, or of groups of private citizens, are definitely more effective in promoting spiritual values than is the activity of public authority.” (Mater et Magistra, 120)
Solidarity HealthShare seeks to restore and rebuild an authentic Catholic health care system that will, in every way, respect and promote the Church’s teachings and traditions with regard to love, responsibility and the sanctity of all human life while endeavoring to share the eligible medical expenses of our members.
The requirements for membership in the ministry are fairly consistent with those of other ministries, for example no drug or alcohol abuse. Regular church attendance is also expected . Not surprisingly for a Catholic entity, there are also prohibitions on contraceptive use (Protestants tend not to have objections to married couples using contraception) and an expectation that members “[r]eceive the Sacraments regularly” and “[c]onsult with our priests over matters of moral conscience.”
Solidarity HealthShare offers three different membership levels. The “annual unshared amount” (personal responsibility amount) is the same for all three levels, $500 for an individual, $1,000 for a couple, and $1,500 for a family. The most generous level, Solidarity Whole, will share 100 percent of medical expenses up to $1 million per incident after the annual unshared amount has been met.
The other two programs, Solidarity Extend and Solidarity First, will both share expenses up to $125,000 per incident. The difference is that 100 percent of medical bills are shareable in Solidarity Extend, while only 70 percent are shared in Solidarity First.
It may surprise those who aren’t familiar with the distribution of medical expenses, but the differences in monthly membership costs aren’t all that significant despite the significantly more generous amount that can be shared at the Solidarity Whole level.
For example, a couple between the ages of 30 and 65 signing up for Solidarity Whole, with a $1 million cap on shareable expenses, would pay $299 a month. Solidarity Extend, with a $125,000 cap, would cost the same couple $277, and Solidarity First would cost $248. This repeats a pattern familiar to members of other ministries who opt for some form of add-on coverage – at Christian Healthcare Ministries, for example, membership in the Brother’s Keeper program typically costs around $25 every three months for each person in a family.
These costs are generally much less than individuals, couples, and families would pay for conventional health coverage. And, just like the other ministries I have written about in the past, members of Solidarity HealthShare are exempt from having to pay the tax/fine for being uninsured, even though technically it isn’t insurance.
One interesting feature of Solidarity HealthShare is something called HealthTrac, which is aimed at members with pre-existing conditions. Here’s how it’s described on their site:
HealthTrac is for Sharing Members of Solidarity HealthShare who qualify for our medical cost sharing program but have certain pre-existing health conditions that can be improved through lifestyle changes. HealthTrac is in place for Sharing Members to improve their health while reducing the risk of developing or exacerbating serious diseases.
HealthTrac is designed to help individuals with diagnoses such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity, as well as tobacco users who are willing to work towards a healthier life. Each HealthTrac participant is assigned a Health Coach to develop a personal plan for achieving goals related to their condition or diagnosis. Regular communication with the coach and tracking of progress is part of the program.
It’s an additional $80 per month to join the program, but I can see where it would be a real value for people struggling with specific conditions.
There is one additional thing that should be pointed out about Solidarity – it is part of a longtime sharing ministry operated by Gospel Light Mennonite Church of Canton, Ohio. No surprise there, since restrictions included in the Affordable Care Act limited the ability to avoid paying a penalty for being uninsured to members of ministries that existed prior to 1999. By partnering with one such pre-existing ministry, Solidarity HealthShare is able to provide this important benefit to its members.
What is a little unusual is that Gospel Light Mennonite Church is also the partner of Liberty Healthshare, and the two ministries seem to have roughly identical programs, including the monthly membership contributions and the HealthTrac option. The web site layouts are pretty similar as well. There’s nothing wrong with this in my view – having separate entities that rely on the same infrastructure is a pretty common business model – but it does raise the question of what the difference is in the two ministries beyond membership requirements (I’ve got a question in to the founder of Solidarity HealthShare on this, and will share his response when I get it).
Solidarity HealthShare is the second ministry aimed at Catholics. CMF Curo, which is part of Samaritan Ministries, has been operating for about two years now. So if you’re Catholic and are looking for a health care sharing ministry that more closely reflects your faith than the generally Protestant-oriented ones, you now have two choices to compare and see which best suits you.
The second sharing ministry that I’ve become aware of recently is Medical Cost Sharing, Inc., based in St. Joseph, Missouri, which I hope to write up in another post in the next few days. If you or anyone you know have joined this ministry, I’d love to hear about the experience so I can include it in my writeup (ditto for any members of Solidary HealthShare, or any of the other ministries for that matter). I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
* “New” is something of a term of art here, given that some entities have partnered with older sharing ministries in order to provide members the benefit of being exempt from penalties for being uninsured under the Affordable Care Act.