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Gov’t officials raise concerns about some health cost-sharing ministries

Gov’t officials raise concerns about some health cost-sharing ministries

Maria Franco (R) explains health insurance to Violet Lucas-Barajas, 28, at an event to inform people about the Affordable Care Act in Los Angeles, California, November 25, 2013. | (Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Officials in Washington have ordered Trinity Healthshare, which advertises itself as a Christian health cost-sharing ministry, to permanently stop insuring people in that state and pay a $150,000 fine for failing to meet the legal definition of a healthcare sharing ministry under state law.

“Many consumers here and in other parts of the country thought they were buying a health insurance plan, only to find out that pre-existing and chronic conditions weren’t covered," Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said in a recent statement. "That resulted in many people facing thousands of dollars of debt for medical expenses they believed would be covered.” 

The Christian Post reached out to Trinity Healthshare for comment multiple times for this report but was repeatedly directed to an automated messaging service by representatives.

Kreidler ordered Trinity Healthshare and its “unlicensed insurance producer Aliera” to immediately stop selling health insurance and end deceptive business practices after receiving dozens of complaints from consumers who were denied coverage when filing medical claims, the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner said.

Aliera and Trinity sold 3,058 policies to Washington consumers and collected $3.8 million in premiums as of June 2019.

Trinity HealthShare, known formerly as Aliera Healthcare, describes itself as an administrator for one of the six companies that were accredited as Health Sharing entities under the Affordable Care Act. The other companies are: Liberty Healthshare, Medi-Share, Samaritan Ministries, Altrua Healthshare and Christian Healthcare Ministries.

According to Kreidler’s office, a legal healthcare sharing ministry is a nonprofit organization whose members have a common set of ethical or religious beliefs and share medical expenses consistent with those beliefs. Federal and state laws require that healthcare sharing ministries be formed before Dec. 31, 1999, and their members to have been actively sharing medical costs. Trinity, however, was formed in June 2018 with no members. 

More than one million Americans struggling to cope with the rising cost of health insurance have joined healthcare sharing ministries, The New York Times reports, due to premiums far lower than those charged by traditional insurance policies, which must meet strict requirements, like guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions, established by the ACA.

The driver behind the lower premiums, however, is due to the fact that these organizations are not classified as insurance and are not legally obligated to pay medical claims. They are allowed to decline coverage to people with pre-existing illnesses and can reject treatments for specialties like mental healthcare.

“Nothing is guaranteed,” Dr. Carolyn McClanahan, a physician who is also a financial planner in Jacksonville, Florida, told The New York Times. “You have to depend on the largess of the program.”

The main requirement for membership is adherence to a Christian lifestyle, which comes with various requirements to prove adherence. Samaritan’s Ministries, based in Peoria, Illinois, requires a priest or pastor to cosign a new applicant’s paperwork, vouching the applicant regularly attends church, PBS reported. That form must be re-submitted annually.

Christian Care Ministry, based in Melbourne, Florida, and Liberty HealthShare, headquartered in Canton, Ohio, also ask potential members to sign a statement of faith that commits the applicant to adhere to a Christian lifestyle and avoid “food, behaviors or habits that produce sickness or disease.” Members of Altrua HealthShare, based in Austin, Texas, are also required to abide by the biblical definition of marriage and flee fornication.

In a statement to CP, Medi-Share argued that healthcare sharing ministries were never designed to act as insurance.

“As with any industry, there will be an occasional bad actor that reflects negatively on the whole. HCSMs were started by Christians whose motivation was to create a community of faith modeled on the early church described in Acts 2," the ministry said.

"HCSMs aren’t designed to imitate health insurance companies; they’re designed to imitate the early church. Our community is strong and vibrant, offering an affordable option for the more than 400k Americans enrolled in Medi-Share. Since 1993, Medi-Share members have shared every eligible medical bill submitted, totaling more than $3B," the ministry continued. "While a Healthcare Sharing Ministry may not be the best fit for every individual and family, for those participating, Medi-Share is a vital, affordable and reasonable alternative with common sense limitations on pre-existing conditions and prescriptions, and considerable savings that can be used not only to pay for preventive care, but to support other endeavors that are important to them, like giving back to their community.”

Still, officials in other states are also ringing the alarm on Christian health cost-sharing ministries.

Nevada insurance regulators warned consumers in December to beware of these plans.

“Open Enrollment is coming to an end on Sunday, and some consumers may find themselves pressured to enroll in health insurance before the deadline, making it easy to fall for misleading marketing practices from entities mimicking health insurance, such as plans offered by health care sharing programs or ministries,” Nevada officials warned in a Dec. 13 statement.

“Consumers should be careful of purchasing plans from HCSMs; they may seem enticing because they may be cheap, look and sound like they are in compliance with the Affordable Care Act (‘ACA’), when in reality these plans are not even insurance products.”

The Texas attorney general also brought a lawsuit last summer against Aliera Healthcare, which marketed Trinity’s ministry program, to stop it from offering “unregulated insurance products to the public.” 

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