There aren’t many religion writers in the Pacific Northwest these days and that's a shame.
For example, The Seattle Times apparently hasn’t had one since Janet Tu left the beat several years ago. If something breaks like last year’s ouster of Mark Driscoll -- then-pastor of Mars Hill, Seattle’s largest church at the time -- the newsroom has to pull reporters from other beats to cover it.
So it was a surprise to see this story leading their web site Sunday on Medi-Share and two other Christian “health-sharing ministries” that act quasi-health insurers for lots of Washington state residents.
When Melissa Mira suffered sudden heart failure at the end of her second pregnancy last year, she worried first about her health and her baby -- then about the more than $200,000 in medical bills that began rolling in.
“Your world is just crashing down around you and you wonder: ‘How is this going to be covered?’ ” recalled Mira, 30, who spent more than a month away from her Tacoma home, hospitalized at the University of Washington Medical Center.
For Mira and her family, the answer came not through traditional health insurance, but through faith that fellow Christians would step forward to pay the bills.
The Miras -- including daughter Jael, 4, and baby Sienna Rain, now a healthy 9-month-old -- are among the growing numbers of people looking to “health care-sharing ministries” across the U.S. At last count, there were more than 10,000 members in Washington state and nearly 400,000 nationwide, individuals and families whose medical costs are taken care of entirely through the organized goodwill -- and monthly payments or “shares” -- of like-minded religious followers.
The writer is the newspaper’s health reporter and the tone is informative and respectful. It’s kind of sad when it’s unusual to find a piece in the secular media about religious practices that have no snark attached.
This article is one of the exceptions. It goes on to say:
Members are technically considered self-pay patients; when they visit doctors or hospitals, they’re classified as not having health insurance. Instead of paying insurance premiums, they pay voluntary “shares” of $300 to $400 a month per family, either directly to other members or to plan organizers who match the money with patient needs.
For Veronika and Michael Boos, of Seattle, who own a small home-brewery-supply business and have three young children, joining Samaritan was more affordable than anything they found on the Washington state health-benefit exchange.
“You’re talking $1,000 a month on the exchange, if you want decent coverage,” said Veronika Boos, 31, who gave birth to their youngest child, Desmond, in February. The family belongs to Cross & Crown Church in Ballard.
Cross & Crown, by the way, is the new name for what once was Mars Hill’s central church until a few months ago. I too have had to buy my insurance on the exchange and the Boos are right about the tremendous costs. So it's news when 10,000-plus people have found an alternate way around this.
The article adds that for uncovered costs (these faith plans don’t do pre-existing conditions), people can post their stories on a “prayer page” and people will send them checks to help out. It’s been my experience that if I show up at a doctor’s office with no insurance, I’ll get no further unless I pay in advance. I’m curious what these Christians do in that situation.
The article does talk about the downside of these plans, such as lawsuits filed by some of the members who claim their care was not paid for. There’s an interesting anecdote about the Washington state insurance commissioner trying to outlaw these groups and seeing the state legislature pass a law opposing his efforts. There are 29 states in which these health-sharing ministries are protected. That's a solid hook for follow-up reporting by journalists in many different markets.
The article concludes with information that gives the impression that these believers are at the least savvy consumers trying, like everyone else, to figure their way around high health care costs. It is the kind of respectful coverage I tend to see given to minority religious groups in the nation's media but not so much to Protestant evangelicals or conservative Catholics.
Now if the Times would only make religion a full-time beat ...