- Category: U.S.
- Published on Wednesday, 20 August 2014 10:46
- Written by Lori Arnold
Cody DeWitt sold his family home and was packing up his household for a move to Illinois where he was about to start a new job with Samaritan Ministries International, a nonprofit alternative to medical insurance.
Unlike insurance in which policyholders send premiums to their insurance companies, Samaritan Ministries’ members send their monthly payment—called a share—directly to a co-member dealing with a health issue.
On the eve of DeWitt’s move, though, the two-year Samaritan Ministries member discovered just how effective the ministry really was after coughing up blood at his parent’s Florida home.
“There I sat in the emergency room, watching, as the physician’s assistant began to draw a picture on the dry-erase board of a tumor that was resting comfortably in my right lung,” DeWitt said.
It was a critical time to test the Samaritan Ministries program.
“After pulmonologists, radiologists, anesthesiologist, oncologists, cardio-thoracic surgeons, and hospitals all had a whack at me, I was staring at over $115,000 in bills,” DeWitt said. “But when the bills were big, the body of Christ was bigger.”
That’s because Samaritan Ministries’ members do much more than share the financial need. Like other Christian-based medical sharing programs, members are encouraged to pray for each other as they mail off their shares.
“I received hundreds of cards, notes, prayers and shares sent by my brothers and sisters in Christ from all over the country,” DeWitt said. “There I sat at my kitchen table as my wife unfolded the colorful picture that a 4-year-old girl drew for me to cheer me up.”
Anthony Hopp, Samaritan Ministries’ director of membership development, said similar stories are recounted by many of its more than 37,000 unique member households, located in all 50 states. Over the past 12 months, members have shared $98.2 million for medical needs.
Samaritan is one of several faith-based health care sharing ministries nationwide, including Christian Healthcare Ministries and MediShare. Together, they represent nearly 120,000 households.
Established in the ’80s and ‘90s, the ministries were relatively unknown in their early years but have steadily gained popularity, especially in light of the federal Affordable Care Act that requires all Americans to have health care insurance.
“They’re not as much of a secret as they used to be,” Hopp said of the programs. “Health care sharing ministries are a whole lot more ‘mainstream’ today than they were even five years ago.”
Early on in the discussion process for ACA—commonly called Obamacare—the medical sharing programs were able to lobby for a rare exception to the mandated coverage.
The exemption allows faith-based programs to exclude shares from being used for any abortion-related purpose,
“I think it’s nothing short of a miracle to get bipartisan support for these ministries,” said James Lansberry, vice president of Samaritan Ministries. “They provide an opportunity to continue to be an island of freedom. They provide an opportunity for people who want a pro-life option. It’s important to me, as it is with many of our members, to have the pro-life alternatives. We want to have a healthcare option that is consistent with our values.”
Such protections are not available under ACA.
“This is actually one of the top reasons members join,” Hopp said.
The enrollment process is relatively simple. Families apply for membership and must agree to adhere to biblical mandates that result in healthy living such as no smoking, drugs or abuse of alcohol. They must also sign a basic statement of faith and answer several lifestyle questions, including acknowledgement of regular church attendance. If approved, they contribute a monthly share which, during the first three months of the first year, is paid to Samaritan Ministries to cover operational costs. After that members share directly with other members 11 out of 12 months each year to pay medical bills while the 12th month is sent to the office.
To comply with ACA, members of a health care sharing program only need to submit a special IRS-provided form when filing their taxes.
In addition to the shared medical bills, members also benefit from discounted rates that are secured by the ministry. Another major bonus is that members can pick their own doctors since patients pay practitioners directly from shares they receive from other members.
Unlike insurance, though, shares are not provided for preventive expenses such as check-ups, routine screenings, dental work, weight control, and some elective surgeries. Supporters of the program said those expenses are easily managed out of pocket because of the huge savings between monthly shares and insurance premiums.
“When sickness and death darkened our doorstep, the body of Christ was there to light our path with prayer and God’s Word,” DeWitt said. “Not only was my financial burden lifted, but the emotional and spiritual burden was lifted as well. It’s a blessing to be working for Samaritan Ministries; but it’s a greater blessing to be a member.”
Lori Arnold is a San Diego-based freelance reporter.