About thirty years ago, a teenager in my church developed cancer around his knee. The doctors had no choice but to remove the diseased section, but they were able to leave him with a functioning limb by rotating the foot and turning his ankle into a knee, which is awesome. But that was the only awesome part. Eventually, the cancer spread, and young Jon died before reaching his twenties. His family suffered not only through his illness and death, but also through tremendous hospital bills from his extensive treatments.
Our pastor offered spiritual encouragement, but that didn’t pay the bills. Instead, the members of the congregation helped cover the costs through public fundraisers, and by writing personal checks directly to the family. By the time I left the church for college, I heard that all of the medical bills had been paid in full. It was a monetary fulfillment of what the church preaches through Galatians 6:2, “carry each other’s burdens.”
At some point, a few Christians with business savvy decided to institutionalize this carrying of burdens, which should throw up big red flags. And yet here I am, decades later, becoming a part of one such group. Starting in 2015, I am forgoing traditional medical insurance, and instead signing up for Medi-Share, a national organization designed to let people pay for each other’s medical bills somewhat directly, but in a way that has the look and feel of medical insurance.
A big reason for the change was cost. This weekend, I was tossing out some old bills and paperwork, and I saw that my monthly premiums had doubled in just four years. Obamacare (and the state-level regulations that preceded it) has not been kind to my family. But I’ve also never been comfortable with company-paid, low-deductible, cost-hiding insurance plans that we’ve taken for granted for decades. Medi-Share, with its focus on caring for “burdens” instead of on basic medical needs, is more in line with my expectations for medical insurance.
But it’s not insurance. Medi-Share’s web site states clearly that it “is not insurance…and is not guaranteed in any way.” It offers no coverage for routine preventative care, including annual checkups, mammograms for the womenfolk, and regular colonoscopy screenings for the older set, something I’ll need to think about in the approaching years. Also, because of the organization’s religious underpinnings, they only allow Christians in good standing with a church to join, and any medical costs that stem directly from intentional sin—injuries sustained from a car accident after an evening of heavy drinking, for example—are rejected from coverage. My biggest concern has to do with the group’s prescription program, as it only covers a given medicine for up to six months, even for chronic conditions like high blood pressure.
On the positive side, the monthly costs are lower due to the plan’s limitations on coverage. Medi-Share’s PPO network is much larger than the one I had before, and is accessible nationwide (except in Montana!). Plus, once you’ve fulfilled the fairly reasonable annual deductible, approved medical costs are covered 100 percent. I will need to shell out $200 to talk to my doctor each year about routine stuff, but a $60,000 hospital charge for a heart attack isn’t going to lead to a second stress-triggered infarction.
I must admit that I’m a little uneasy about giving up familiar insurance for a no-guarantee program. And the plan itself might anger some, with its religious tests and its indifference to daily medical concerns. I’d love to see other groups spring up that target different audiences or that offer expanded coverage, but that can’t happen for now. The same Obamacare legislation that includes an exception for Health Care Sharing Ministries (section 1501 of the ACA, pages 147-148, “Religious Conscience Exemption”) also restricts the practice to religious groups, and only those that have offered pseudo-insurance services since December 31, 1999.
Despite my qualms about this change, I’m optimistic about what Medi-Share has to offer. Replacing traditional coverage with “sharing” is certainly a risk, but not necessarily more than I had before. It’s a confusing time for medical care in America, but the idea of freely donating money to others in need has never been confusing.