'Health ministries' offer insurance alternative, but draw concern

Though the Affordable Care Act has encouraged many more people to sign up for health coverage, some Americans are opting for an unconventional choice instead--"health ministries."

Though health ministries differ in their function and scope, generally they cover the medical bills of any individual who agrees to abide by a Christian lifestyle and attend church on an ongoing basis. Members essentially agree to share the cost of their medical expenses and bet that their out-of-pocket savings will make up for any expenses they incur being part of a communal risk pool, according to Bankrate's Insurance Blog.

An estimated 450,000 Americans now opt to share health bills with their fellow parishioners, according to the Tampa Bay Times. This arrangement exempts the faithful from the ACA's individual mandate, an attractive selling point to opponents of the healthcare reform law. 

But traditional insurance plans are subject to much heavier regulation than health ministries, which worries at least one consumer advocate.

"With your Humana plan or Cigna plan, there's a cop minding the beat--there's a state official looking over the insurance company's shoulder making sure they have enough money to pay the claims," Sabrina Corlette, project director of Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms, told the Tampa Bay Times. "There's none of that independent oversight of the healthcare sharing ministries."

Then there's the fact that health ministries like Medi-Share, which boasts 95,000 members nationwide, also does not cover maternity care for any pregnancies that occur out of wedlock, unless the member was the victim of a "verifiable" rape, FierceHealthFinance has reported. Many religious groups already object to the ACA's contraceptive coverage mandate, however.

Health ministry proponents say it's clear these organizations are not offering insurance, and some members told the Tampa Bay Times they're happy with having an alternative option. "You are really just relying on a community of like-minded people," one member told the newspaper.

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