The D.C. Three may disagree, but from my perch out west it appears that the only news coming out of the capitol these days -- especially today -- concerns healthcare reform. Almost all of the religion mentions I have seen in health care reform stories has concerned either whether religious leaders were on board or whether the latest version of the bill included federal funding for abortion. Sometimes it's a combination of the both. Granted, those are issues closer to the center of the debate. But for months I've been waiting for someone at a major media outlet to report on a unique Christian health care alternative that might be affected by mandatory insurance.
Christian health plans are not incredibly common, but they're out there, as the above CBN video from January demonstrates. (Several years ago I wrote a feature about the insurance alternatives that has disappeared from the Christianity Today website.) Last week, NPR made itself aware:
The groups are not regulated because unlike insurance there's no guarantee an individual's bills will be paid. That's something members take on faith.
James Lansberry, the vice president of Samaritan Ministries, says the concept is simple. First there's a $170 annual fee to cover Samaritan's administrative costs. His nonprofit group then compiles members' health care bills and tells its 14,000 households where to send their monthly checks.
"The money doesn't get received at our central office -- it goes directly from one family to another," Lansberry says. "So each month I send my monthly share of $285 directly to another family."
That's all it costs for Lansberry, his wife and their seven children to be in the program. That's a fraction of what a typical health insurance policy would cost.
Assuming your medical bills get covered, yes, that is all it costs. There has, however, been some concern about that; Nevada's insurance chief banned Christian health plans back in 2007. NPR doesn't focus more on this issue, nor did its reporter really need to. Rather, reporter Jeff Brady turned his attention to why some Christians would be motivated to pay a fellow Christians medical bills rather than an insurance premium:
In addition to the potential of saving money, Mary Miller says she likes Samaritan's promise that no money will ever be used to pay for an abortion. And she says she isn't worried about giving up the security of traditional insurance.
"Being a Christian means walking by faith. And we believe that God is ultimately in control of everything, and that things work best when you go his way," she says.
Religion is a large part of Samaritan's business model. Members need a pastor's signature just to join. And there are restrictions.
If a member contracts a sexually transmitted disease outside of marriage, Samaritan members won't pay the associated health care costs.
Depending on the Christian health plan, those aren't even the only restrictions. (Something like no drinking, no smoking and no running with girls who do.) NPR focused on Samaritan Ministries, but there are many others like Medi-Share and Christian Healthcare Ministries, whose slogan is "the biblical solution to healthcare costs."
But the question I had as I heard this story, a question answered in the final words, is what happens to these health plans, which are not insurance, if Congress passes legislation mandating all Americans have health insurance? Will there be an exemption deeming this Christian share plans a legally legitimate alternative?
Currently, the Senate-passed bill includes the exemption. The House-passed bill does not.
In other words ... we'll see. Unless no media outlets care to inform us about this exemption when and if Congress passes health care reform.