For a growing number of faithful, ‘health ministries’ supplant insurance

Although religious groups have challenged the Obama Administration over a variety of insurance-related issues, such as employer requirements to provide contraception, some of the faithful have taken a surprising path in response to the Affordable Care Act and its approach to health insurance: Christians, the New York Times has reported, are foregoing traditional insurers and coverages and “flocking” to “health care ministries”─groups in which members pay small amounts, seek to spread risks, and agree to cover each other’s health costs.

The paper said the groups have existed for a long time but have returned to prominence due to Obamacare’s coverage mandates and penalties. As the paper notes:

Because they are not insurance companies, sharing ministries provide no guarantee that members’ medical debts will be paid; members are advised to trust that God will provide. The ministries say the payment system is helping Christians fulfill a biblical mandate to share one another’s burdens.

Group members say the ministries aren’t the fastest to pay, and they must cover costs up front, hoping for reimbursement. Many of the groups require members to cover a sometimes hefty portion of health care costs. And  the paper says:

Pre-existing medical conditions are often not covered, nor are preventive care, mental health, and injuries resulting from behavior the ministry considers immoral or reckless. Members who acquire a sexually transmitted disease from an extramarital affair are out of luck, for instance, as are those injured while driving drunk or during a melee.

Still, group members said their health care bills running into the thousands of dollars had been covered; many of the ministries cap payments at $250,000. Members say the ministries provide them with protections from sharply rising health care costs, while also allowing them to keep their faith, such as by having no connection with the government and medical procedures like abortion and contraception that they find objectionable.

Membership has doubled to more than 500,000 participants nationwide, says a group that serves as the alliance for the ministries. Insurance regulators have tried to block the groups in various states, but legislators have interceded and passed laws permitting them. Participants typically waive their rights to pursue legal claims or actions against the ministries in the civil justice system.

Affinity groups of different kinds, of course, play key roles in various aspects of the U.S. economy, including in health care. Religious orders run hospitals and hospital chains, sometimes with controversies as a result. Seniors have banded together through the giant AARP to win discounts on various health services. Alumni groups of universities and colleges and professional organizations often provide member benefits, including in health care coverage or services.

Still, it’s a dispiriting commentary on the state of the nation’s health care when a big block of citizens feels so alienated that they feel they must go outside existing systems, taking on increased risks and for potentially lesser results.

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