Members of Christian health care sharing ministries need to have faith that God will provide.
Unlike insurance companies, there is no guarantee made by the ministries that its members' hospital bills will be paid for. Participants of the Christian alternative for health insurance need to believe that God will use the body of Christ to provide for them.
"The biggest stepping stone that people have coming into Samaritan Ministries is that this is not what they are used to," said James K. Lansberry, vice president of Samaritan Ministries, to The Christian Post. "Americans are used to pre-paid medical care through their insurance company."
"Stepping into a faith-based option like this where they are actually the responsible person and they are actually engaged in their health care is a little nerve wrecking," he acknowledged.
Samaritan Ministries is currently the largest Christian health care sharing organization out of three in the United States, counting nearly 15,000 families, or about 50,000 people, as members.
How it Works
Each month, members of Samaritan Ministries receive a newsletter directing them to send their monthly share dues to another participating family who has verified medical bills. The monthly dues range from $135 for singles to $320 for a two-parent family of any size, which is vastly cheaper than insurance. There is also an annual administrative fee of $170 for each membership.
Through this plan, the ministry meets $3.5 million in medical needs a month, according to Lansberry.
But more than having their medical needs met, people join the health care sharing plan because of the emotional and spiritual dimensions.
Samaritan Ministries requires all its members to agree to live in a biblical way that reduces health problems, such as not abusing alcohol, abstaining from use of tobacco and illegal drugs, and abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage.
And when people send their monthly dues to a member family, they include a card or note of encouragement and prayer.
"So it is not just about getting the financial needs met. That is an important part of what we do," Lansberry said. "But it is about those notes and cards, especially those prayers that are going up to God so that our members are receiving that prayer blanket at a time when they need it most. The larger the medical need you have the more members are praying for you."
$23,000 Hospital Bill
A few years ago Lansberry's wife had her appendix removed and the medical bill was more than $23,000. The following month he received checks and cards from over 100 people from 21 different states. His family was able to pay the full bill within 90 days.
"[T]he really neat part about this is…we're sitting around the supper table opening the mail and this one is from Montana and this one is from Florida," he recalled. "Just opening up and reading the cards from people we will never meet on this side of heaven who are praying for us [and] sharing that burden with us. "
"For me that is the most exciting part of being a part of this," he said.
Medical providers treat members of health care sharing plans as self-paid patients. The Samaritan Ministries' central office in Illinois receives medical bills from members and verifies them. It does not, however, handle money from monthly shares except from new members for their first few months.
By telling members to send checks directly to another household, Samaritan Ministries said it avoids legal accusations that it operates like an insurance company but does not offer the same guarantees.
Most of Samaritan Ministries' members are self-employed, pastors or missionaries.
But in the case of Lansberry, he was working in the hospitality industry and was offered insurance when he joined in 1996. He was so excited about the program that he left his job and became a full-time staff at Samaritan Ministries in 1999.
Samaritan Ministries was incorporated in 1991 and began sharing needs in September 1994.
There are times when the shares are not enough to cover the medical cost of members, Lansberry acknowledged. At that time, Samaritan Ministries works with the affected member and the hospital to negotiate discounts. If the amount after discounts still exceeds the money on hand, the ministry then asks members to send money beyond their monthly shares.
If for three months in a row the medical cost exceeds funds from shares, then members can vote to raise their monthly shares, as they have this year.
Lansberry said that to the best of his knowledge the ministry has been able to meet the needs of all its members through hospital discounts and other arrangements.
"Part of the nature of what we do is that we are not the ultimate provider but God is the ultimate provider," he stressed. "And that is the faith-based nature of what we do."
But for some, the instability of the health care sharing plan meant the program was not for them.
Mitch Temple, who had to purchase his own health insurance after leaving Focus on the Family, said he briefly looked into the Christian health care sharing ministry but did not join because of the instability.
"For the first time in my life and career of 30 years I didn't have insurance provided for me because I went out on my own," said Temple, who now works as a consultant, to The Christian Post this week. "We don't have a stable income coming in each month."
He decided not to go with the health care sharing plan because "simply it didn't provide the security" his family wanted.
"We were needing some security in at least a certain part of our lives so when it came to insurance we decided to go with a company that even though the cost was much higher it provided the security," Temple said.
He decided to go with Blue Cross Blue Shield with which costs more than $600 a month with a high deductible compared to $320 with Samaritan Ministries.
"That was more of what we are used to over the last 25 or 30 years," he said. "Samaritan Ministries, even though it is a great program that helps a lot of people, just wasn't for us at this point in our lives."
Samaritan Ministries' spokesman Lansberry has said numbers are not the top priority for his group.
"It is more important to us that our members when they join understand what they are getting involved in than that we gets lots of new members," he said. "We tend to be cautious marketing it because of that."
Samaritan Ministries is proud of the fact that 80 percent of its new members come through referrals.