Faith-Based Health Sharing Plans: A Viable Alternative for Traditional Medical Insurance?

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hospital bracelet

image by capturedbychelsea

In light of a lot of recent events with my family and friends, health insurance has become a hot topic of discussion around these parts lately.  One of the things that has come up is the concept of health sharing plans in lieu of traditional health insurance.  The idea isn’t new – faith-based “health sharing arrangements” have been around since the early 80’s as an alternative to standard health insurance plans.  The thing I’ve long hailed is that no matter what your lot in life, health insurance is a necessity.  I believe you take too big a risk of sinking your financial ship if you do not carry at least basic major medical coverage of some sort, and I even dedicated a portion of my book to that very notion.

There are plenty of folks out there that don’t have insurance and can’t afford to spend the money to buy it.  For a standard family plan, even when everybody is healthy, it is possible to spend $1,000 or more per month for basic health coverage.  Costs vary wildly across the country and based on too many factors to get into here, so let me sum up my findings on traditional insurance with one statement: it is EXPENSIVE.  So alternatives to traditional health insurance are always of interest to those who want a safety net but don’t want to pay an insurance company.

Since I didn’t know much about the alternatives (other than Medicare and the like), someone asked me specifically what I thought about health sharing plans like Medi-Share or Samaritan Ministries.  I’ve done some research and want to share what I’ve found.  Before I continue, please know I’m not an expert so I’d love your comments and feedback on your knowledge and experience with these health insurance alternatives.

First, I found out that they are a viable alternative to traditional insurance, but they are not actual insurance.  Here’s basically how it works.  Each month, members pay a fixed amount into a pool, which is jointly shared among a large group of members.  That pool covers the medical needs of those who submit claims and the general administrative expenses of the program.  Unlike medical insurance, you are able to learn how the monies were spent and how coverage is handled.  In fact, Medi-Share is proud of the fact that its members actually vote on what gets covered and what doesn’t.

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image by luxomedia

Second, if the much-debated health care reform laws are enacted in 2014 as planned, these health sharing plans have already gained an exemption from the government-mandated health care, meaning they are (even in the government’s eyes) a reasonable health plan.  For many of you out there, this is a big deal.

Third, I found a major quirk with these types of health sharing arrangements that you won’t usually find with insurance.  This is where I spent most of my time learning and what I would suggest you really look into if you’re considering these types of programs.  Health sharing plans are very up-front in saying that they won’t cover every type of medical expense that comes along and they set some expectations up front on who can join.  Samaritan Ministries openly shares in its guidelines that you must proclaim Christ as your savior, attend church regularly, abstain from tobacco and/or drugs, and limit your alcohol intake.  I guarantee you’ll never read that in a traditional insurance policy!

I only found one big thing that bothered me about these plans – eligibility.  With traditional insurance, you’re usually covered for just about anything that falls under your plan.  With health sharing arrangements, that may or may not be the case.  For example, while the rules around it don’t seem like they’re too tough to follow, it is very possible that I could submit a bill and the members could opt to not share the funds to pay it.  This was a concern I found over and over in the online articles I read, as well as a question addressed by Medi-Share and Samaritan Ministries.  Their answers are almost identical: if you are living a biblical Christian lifestyle and have a health issue, you can be confident it will be covered.  That only makes me feel a little better.

So what are my final thoughts?  If I couldn’t get a good traditional health insurance policy, I would strongly consider a health sharing arrangement.  For the average uninsured person, this type of plan might just be the best safety net your money can buy.  Is it as good as traditional health insurance?  My vote is no.  However, it is a heck of a lot cheaper than paying out of pocket for medical bills and much less expensive than buying an individual policy.

What are your thoughts?  I’d love to know your experience with these plans, good or bad.

*This post is linked at Frugal Days Sustainable Ways at Frugally Sustainable.


Comment Policy: I love hearing your thoughts and input on what I write. Since I write about what works at my house, what pleases my handsome hubby and darling children; I'm sure we'll disagree sometimes. In those cases, do what's right for you and yours. As with any form of communication, please only post comments that move the discussion in a positive direction.

About Barry

Barry is the husband half of the Stacy Makes Cents team, responsible for all the marketing, website development, sanity management and taste testing. Barry writes about personal finance issues, helping people get out of debt, live on a budget and make the most of every cent that comes into their hands. He is the author of From Debtor to Better: The Details of Debt and How to Get Out! and writes periodically on his own site, Debtor to Better.

  • Sherri

    We have Medi-share. We opted to use medishare instead of the traditional health insurance available to us by my husband employer. We love it and have no problems with it! We researched it before we made the decision to switch. No, medishare does not cover everything that traditional health insurance covers. That is a big reason why they can keep the premiums lower would be my guess. Medishare is a faith based sharing “company”. So we had to sign a form giving our testimony of faith in Jesus Christ, confirming that we were active in our local church and had to give the name of the church, the pastor’s name and a reference for them to verify our information. There are limitations to eligibility. Personally, I like that. It means that my money is not going to pay for certain things that I believe go against Biblical principles! I was informed before joining that a certain medical condition would not be covered as it was a pre-existing condition. I had no problems with that as I had taken measures before joining that would take care of it and I firmly believe that if I live (to the best of my ability) a healthy life style and whole foods diet I won’t have any more problems with it. I have never heard that we can choose not to pay a particular medical bill. They do have certain rules in place that say certain things will not be paid, but you are told about those up front. If something comes up that is in question, it is brought before all members and we vote on it. The last thing that came up was about well baby care after the baby is born (follow up check-ups and such) only because they were not listed as an active member. We voted that it should be covered. My opinion, they haven’t had time to add a newborn, so if we are going to cover pregnacy cost, why not cover new baby needs. I don’t see a real problem with the sharing plans and love the one we are with! As for most things, it’s not for everyone, but it sure works for my husband and I. We also liked the fact that when we joined, Medishare was debt free. All medicals bills submited, had been paid in full!

  • http://impossibleway.livejournal.com Brandy

    I know someone who uses Samaritan Ministries and she and her family have been blessed tremendously by their membership. They adopted a special needs child from Bulgaria and have had a lot of health expenses, but God has made the way for them, through Samaritan and the kindness of others. Her blog is The Blessing of Verity. :-)

  • Cherish

    With any insurance company people need to check the reputation of paying claims. Insurance is not good if the company is slow and picky paying claims. For instance, some polices only cover major strokes not mini strokes Did you know there was a difference? If you can’t get the insurance to pay your medical bills what is the point in getting it. My husband also sales supplemental insurance. When we could not afford health insurance we made sure we had a supplemental policy that would cover major issues. This is important because if something major happened like cancer and heart attacks and we didn’t have insurance that covered those health issues we would be in a financial hardship for the rest of our lives.

  • Anne

    Thank you for sharing this. I haven’t had insurance for over a year now. My husband just got insurance in January, but we can’t afford to add me to the policy.

    Since I am Agnostic, I wouldn’t be eligible for a plan like this. I will just have to wait till I find work and cross my fingers it has benefits.

  • Anne

    Another question. I have a child with special needs. She just turned 6 and has had 5 major surgeries. I am talking surgeries that where 100K. Does Medi-Share cover such huge medical expenses? Or is Medi-Share just for routine medical expenses like check-ups, vax’s etc.

    • Barry

      I’m not sure whether these expenses would be covered or not. I’ll have to defer to those who have one of these progams. Can someone reading help us answer this?

    • http://FeminineAdventures.com Anna @ Feminine Adventures

      I’m not sure how Medi-Share works but we are with Samaritan Ministries and are SO happy with it. My husband actually is eligible for coverage through work, but our part of the premiums was still very high. Samaritan does NOT cover routine doctor visits. Members are responsible for that and any minor procedures under $300. That is part of what keeps the monthly share so low. Just setting aside part of what you save from not paying the high premiums easily offsets the doctor visit costs.

      What I LOVE about Samaritan is that as long as there are enough funds, your ENTIRE bill after the first $300 is covered. (We were responsible for 20% with my husband’s insurance. 20% of a major bill would have sunk us!) The only need we have submitted this far was for my daughter’s birth. They were so easy to work with. When I had a difficult time getting the necessary expense breakdown, I called and asked what I should do. Our team leader said, “Children are a blessing. Take care of your baby and stop worrying. You did what you could, let us take care of it now.” I nearly cried. ;)

      The month we submitted our bills to Samaritan, they had more needs than total pool. The upfront amount of our need was supplied at 80%. Any discounts we could get were taken afterward. Then, since we still had an unpaid portion, the following month’s surplus and donations that came in, went to help each of us that still had unpaid expenses. In the end, we had to cover less than $100 of our bill!

      God is good and through Samaritan we have seen His goodness to us through His people. I highly recommend them!

      • Stacy

        Thanks for giving these details and a good testimony of the program! It seems like no one yet has had anything bad to say about the program (of those who are actually enrolled). Thanks for sharing this info!

      • Anne

        Thank you for sharing. I am terrified of my daughters future medical expenses and how she will be able to afford her care.

        • Stacy

          It’s good that you’re thinking about that now. :-)

  • http://motheringblindfolded.blogspot.com Rachel

    My husband and I recently decided we are going to drop our private health insurance and go wit Samaritan Ministries instead. One of the biggest reasons for doing this is because they cover homebirths and maternity, and we want more children. You really cannot get maternity coverage through a private plan, so we have had to pay everything out of pocket for the birth of both of our daughters and it does not even goes towards our deductible since it’s not considered medical! For our second, we went the homebirth route to save money (and had an amazing experience too!). We know we want to do future homebirths, and Samaritan Ministries will cover it (actually, they encourage homebirths since it is much cheaper)!

    We are a pretty healthy family, so the coverage they provide is perfect for us. I love how they put God into the process too – you can’t get that anywhere else! If we went the traditional insurance route, purchased privately since my husband is a minister and also self-employed, we spend just under $300 a month for a policy that does not cover ANYTHING until we pay $10,400 out of pocket PLUS not everything is considered applicable towards the deductible (IE: maternity costs)! If we wanted a lower, more manageable deductible, it would be closer to $1000, and we are in our 20′s!

  • Cy Vanover

    Do you know if any of the health sharing plans have a deductible requirement? In other words, would a member have to pay a certain amount out-of-pocket each year before the pool kicks in and pays the bills?

    • Stacy

      Hey Cy,

      I just had someone comment and provide an answer to that for Samaritan Ministries. It seems that costs under $300 (with their plan) are yours; bigger expenses get shared and covered. That means routine doctor visits, etc. are not covered, but there isn’t a real “deductible” like you’d have with insurance. See this answer (and some other good details I didn’t know or share) in the comments.

      • Sherri

        with Medi-share there is a deductable. However there are several deductables to choose from. I think they start at 250 and go up from there.

    • Stacy

      One other thing I found: there is a share calculator on Medi-Share’s site (medi-share.com) that will give you an idea of your out of pocket options. http://mychristiancare.org/medi-share-pricing-tool.aspx

  • http://quickeasycheaphealthy.com Anne @ Quick and Easy Cheap and Healthy

    My parents have been members of Samaritan ministries for years. They have definitely helped them through the years by covering the majority of several major health issues. I will say, though, that they put off my dad’s heart surgery until he was eligible for Medicare, just to be sure it was covered. One other thing to consider: there are hospitals and clinics that treat the uninsured and accept whatever payment is offered (however little it might be). My youngest sister had to have open heart surgery as an infant, which would have cost thousands and thousands of dollars at Hopkins (the closest children’s hospital to where we lived at the time), and while Samaritan paid the majority (as i recall) of the testing and medical work leading up to the surgery, my parents opted to go to Deborah Heart and Lung Center in New Jersey, which treats heart patients for free (or whatever they can afford to pay). In fact, they continued to monitor my sister’s condition until she turned 18, at absolutely no cost! I have heard of similar hospitals that treat other conditions.

  • Amanda

    Can you use this as a supplement? Like if you have insurance but higher copays, will they cover costs that insurance doesn’t cover?

    • Stacy

      Hey Amanda, since I couldn’t find a good answer for this, I called Medi-Share and just asked. The gentleman I spoke with was EXTREMELY helpful and in our discussion, he shared that Medi-Share is a primary provider, but the fact that you have other insurance coverage would not keep you from being in their program or getting assistance from it. However, he challenged me to compare insurance coverage that you may have against them, simply because the cost associated with having two “primary” providers just doesn’t make good sense. One suggestion he made was to have the person covered by insurance at work for example to keep that insurance but have the family covered by Medi-Share (as dependent coverage is often not covered by employers). Hope that helps.

  • Karen

    This topic, along with the high premiums we are paying for insurance, just adds to my feeling of frustration that this country chooses not to take care of its citizens with a national health insurance program. When we consider the incredible amounts of money that many are paying to buy insurance, and if we instead funneled even a portion of that money to a national insurance (yes, a tax), most people would be better off in the long run. And people could stop making career decision that are controlled more by the practicality of finding insurance than by the passion for their work. The biggest losers, financially, in a national program would be those blessed few that still have fully – or mostly – paid insurance through their work. But the handwriting is on the wall – this fringe benefit is one more and more companies are choosing not to pay for. But for now, the decision-makers aren’t being hit in the pocketbook either, so the rest of us are stuck. OK, that’s my soapbox rant. Stepping down now. Thanks for reading.

    • Stacy

      Karen, I know many will disagree with your comment (and I admit I do as well, but not because I disagree with a need for change), but I thank you for putting it out there for the sake of discussion. If you’ve been around here long enough, you’ll know I’ll approve and publish any comments (positive or negative) that are constructive and can move along the discussion/debate in a positive direction.

      My disagreement comes because I believe the discussion needs to go much deeper than a “national health plan”. I tend to believe that nationalizing any program that can’t already function on its own surely won’t make it better and I instead believe our government needs to get smaller rather than larger. If I truly believed my tax dollars were well spent I’d have no trouble going along with many of the government programs, but I KNOW there is way too much waste and junk going on in Washington. HOWEVER, I also believe that SOMETHING must be done about our health care and I’m open for any good ideas – I sure haven’t heard any decent options yet that can handle the mess we’re in with our health care.

  • Rebecca

    My husband & I have insurance for a total of 6 months in the past 9 years. We have checked into these share programs & they want a lot up front to become members. We don’t have a lot of money to begin with, & after reading this post & hearing these comments I am really glad we have not signed up. A few comments above an agnostic said she wouldn’t qualify because of her belief (or lack thereof). Did God ever say ‘I’m not going to cover you because you’re not a Christian’? NO. These people get to decide how Christian you are before you even ‘get’ to be a member? I am a Christian, and totally in love with Jesus. It is to bad that I have to be lumped in with ‘Christians’ like these.

    • http://www.pagesbyheather.blogspot.com Heather

      The whole idea isn’t that “You aren’t a Christian so we can’t stand you.” It is more that we as a group of Christians pledge to live within biblical standards. By doing so the group’s total cost is much lower (no care due to smoking issues, alcohol or drug abuse issues, STDs and other issues) and it makes it possible for us to all work together to cover the medical expenses of everyone. I would argue that most of us who belong to plans like these (we are Samaritan Ministries members) donate a lot of our income to help those less fortunate. My husband is self-employed and for us to cover our own insurance it was going to be over $10,000/year since we would need maternity coverage. And that maternity coverage would need to be paid for an entire year before we were able to use it. Which means our first pregnancy and birth wouldn’t have been covered because we got pregnant on our honeymoon (just after I left my employer and that health plan).

      With Samaritan we are in the process of collecting shares for our third child’s birth. It was going to be at a birth center and we had pre-collected our midwife and center fees and wouldn’t have spent anything out of pocket. However he flipped breech and we ended up with an emergency c-section and a NICU stay. We did negotiate with the hospital and doctors after we got the bills (all it took were a few phone calls) and got our bills reduced by 40% by EVERYONE. Then we sent those in and they are going to all be reimbursed. The shares this month are prorated, but because we got discounts ours are not. So again, this birth which ended up costing just over $25,000 (AFTER DISCOUNTS!!) is going to cost us $0 out of pocket.

      Yes, we pay for well visits, get the few vaccines we do at the health clinic and pay our share of $320/month to families. The best part is reading the letters and cards and knowing we are being prayed for all over the country. I love calling there and talking to a person right away (no menu! no run around!) and that even when my baby screamed through the phone call the response was “That is a happy sound! We love babies.” I NEVER felt that way dealing with insurance.

      So, some may say it isn’t Christian to not include everyone. I say this program allows us to have me home, has taken care of us during a difficult time, doesn’t have our money covering things we don’t agree with and has my family praying every day for someone we know needs our prayers. I love our experience with Samaritan and think it is worth looking into for many Christian families!

      Sorry for the novel :)
      Heather

  • http://www.heathersblog-o-rama.blogspot.com Heather :) :) :)

    I think this is an interesting article…and I’ve heard of health plans like this before. A friend of mine had written about the Samaritan plan. Right now, we’re so broke, that we can’t afford any health coverage of any kind whatsoever. Right now, our health insurance is God…keeping us safe ;) :) Now when my dad had his heart scare back in January, he went to the hospital to be treated. It was a literal life/death situation…and we weren’t sure how we would cover it. Fortunately he’s a veteran, so the VA paid for EVERYTHING. That was a real blessing. My dad has health coverage through the VA…but I don’t. Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather ;)

  • http://www.mrszadventure.blogspot.com Mrs. Z

    I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion. I too have been wondering about these plans as our insurance costs continue to skyrocket. I’m still leery of jumping off the boat into something new, but I have asked for info to be sent on the MediShare program. I keep reading on these and prayerfully considering if this might be a better option for our family than standard insurance.

  • Faith McCracken

    thank you for posting this information. My husband and I are Missionaries and “self employed” so the cost of insurance for our family is completely unaffordable. With the economy the way it is financial support is alot harder to raise. This looks like a good alternative for us.

    • Stacy

      Faith, it sounds like it just might be what you’re looking for! :-)

    • http://www.pagesbyheather.blogspot.com Heather

      If you have any questions Faith I’d be happy to tell you about our experience with Samaritan Ministries. As I stated up about we have just gone through a scary, emergency c-section and NICU stay and everything we had hoped about SM has been true! We were a bit worried before we joined, but it has been wonderful!

      Heather

  • http://www.ThankfullyThrifty.com Thankfully Thrifty

    I have thought about this! Right now our insurance is fine, but I’ve thought about it for the future if my hubby goes and does his own thing. I hear it’s great and that those special case scenarios are usually covered.

    • Stacy

      It’s something we’re keeping in mind too. :-)

  • http://the-storms.blogspot.com Faith @ Storms Stories

    What it came down to for my husband and I is the fact that our money we were paying to the insurance company was being used for things we would not otherwise support, such as abortions and abortifacient birth controls. That fact made the decision for us to switch over to Samaritans.

    • Stacy

      Well good grief. That would give anyone the shivers!!

  • Brandi

    Hi Stacy, My husband and I are looking in to Samaritan Ministries. I noticed that all your comments were from a year ago. So I am taking a guess that you are still with the plan? Do you have some different pros and cons regarding this type of insurance? A lot can happen in a year. How do you feel now? We are mostly concerned with the little things that will nickle and dime us to death. All other information has been pretty clear about how they take care of the “big” things….. but the little things like Epi-pens, inhalers, breathing treatments, Dr. Checkups, annual checkups, and other prescriptions like when there is a sinus infection, or strep, We are a family of 4. My husbands is losing his job in December, so we are doing lots of research to see what will work the best of us. Just this last summer I had to have gall bladder surgery, and we were hit hard, even with what we thought was “good insurance” . Then at the beginning of the school year, we felt like we were throwing money away just trying to get all the updated Epi-pens and inhalers, shots and check-ups etc. Vicious cycle!

    • myersbr2

      Hey Brandi, we thankfully have always had insurance through my employer so this was a post I researched and learned about first-hand, although we never had to put it in place. Knowing a few close friends who have it, I would not change any of the things I wrote in the post, but since you specifically asked about smaller expenses, you should realize that most of these Christian medical plans are primarily major medical plans – they aren’t the same as traditional plans where everything is at least partially covered. I called and asked a LOT of questions to Medi-Share, one of the programs I mentioned. These people know their stuff! I would recommend you take out your last year or so of medical expenses and call these folks to ask what is/isn’t covered. That should help settle this decision in your mind.