Christian Groups Find Way Around High Health Costs

The nonprofit Samaritan Ministries transfers money among its members to pay each household's health care costs. Benefits to members include lower monthly payments and faith-based policies, but there's no guarantee their bills will be covered. Several evangelical Christian groups are using similar approaches.

As policymakers in Washington, D.C., debate overhauling health care, several evangelical Christian groups have found a way of getting around the high cost of health insurance. Instead of paying premiums, they simply agree to pay each other's medical bills.

The groups are not regulated because unlike insurance there's no guarantee an individual's bills will be paid. That's something members take on faith.

Family To Family

James Lansberry, the vice president of Samaritan Ministries, says the concept is simple. First there's a $170 annual fee to cover Samaritan's administrative costs. His nonprofit group then compiles members' health care bills and tells its 14,000 households where to send their monthly checks.

"The money doesn't get received at our central office — it goes directly from one family to another," Lansberry says. "So each month I send my monthly share of $285 directly to another family."

That's all it costs for Lansberry, his wife and their seven children to be in the program. That's a fraction of what a typical health insurance policy would cost.

Carl Bobb of Strasburg, Colo., says he's been using Samaritan for six years, and getting his medical bills paid is relatively easy.

"When we have a payment due on something, we'll pay what the minimum is — that they'd like us to pay that day," Bobb says. "[Then] we submit it to Samaritan. And within 30 days, we get our claims processed through Samaritan, and checks start coming in from folks."

Bobb says often there's a note included with the check offering encouragement and prayers.

Faith-Based Policies

Chris and Mary Miller from Oakland, Ill., recently watched a Samaritan Ministries presentation at a church outside Denver. They're self-employed farmers and are thinking about giving up their current health insurance.

"We spend about $15,000 a year on health care premiums," Chris Miller says.

In addition to the potential of saving money, Mary Miller says she likes Samaritan's promise that no money will ever be used to pay for an abortion. And she says she isn't worried about giving up the security of traditional insurance.

"Being a Christian means walking by faith. And we believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, and that things work best when you go his way," she says.

Religion is a large part of Samaritan's business model. Members need a pastor's signature just to join. And there are restrictions.

If a member contracts a sexually transmitted disease outside of marriage, Samaritan members won't pay the associated health care costs.

For the group's main program, benefits are capped at $100,000. If overall costs start to outpace the amount of money coming in, members vote to raise their monthly contributions.

No Guarantee

Underneath everything — including the lack of government regulation — is a warning: Samaritan and other groups like it never guarantee that an individual's bills will be covered.

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Joel Ario says that's something people should carefully consider before signing up. While he admires the concept of individuals helping each other, Ario says this is not like the insurance policies most people are accustomed to.

"The insurance product is a legal obligation of the insurance company, and it will be there even if the claims you have turn out to be very large in nature," Ario says.

Groups like Samaritan Ministries are keeping a close watch on health care legislation in Congress. The big question is whether they'll win an exemption from health insurance mandates for their members. Because if their members are forced to buy insurance anyway, there's little reason to contribute to Samaritan's insurance alternative, too.

Currently, the Senate-passed bill includes the exemption. The House-passed bill does not. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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