Check this out: New York Times aces tough story mixing faith, health, money and politics

Every now and then, I hit a story in a major mainstream news-media source that focuses on a topic that I happen to know something about through first-hand experience.

How often does this happen to you and, well, how do you feel when you are reading these reports?

I hear from people all the time who say that, every time they read stories that hit close to home, they lose some of their faith in the press. Let me say that this has rarely been my experience. Then again, I spend most of my time on the other side of the notepad.

However, there was a New York Times piece that ran the other day that covered a trend that has directly impacted many friends of mine in the past year or so -- rising healthcare costs. My own family got caught up in this trend during the first few months after we moved back to East Tennessee.

The key: Many people who work for themselves or who are employed by small schools, churches or non-profit ministries find it almost impossible to afford traditional healthcare insurance. Many have, in recent months, faced cost jumps of somewhere between $500 to $1,000 a month. Panic can set in.

Thus, many are joining religious healthcare coops that -- legally -- are allowed to take the place of traditional insurance. This is not a new trend (see the older CNN piece at the top of this post). However, the number of people choosing this option is headed up, up, up.

That brings us to the Times piece that ran with this headline: "Christians Flock to Groups That Help Members Pay Medical Bills."

The bottom line: This piece is shockingly snark-free. There are a few gaps in it, methinks, but there is a flashback to religion news from the days before Kellerism. Here is a major chunk of the story:

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.
“Our only assets are the good will and continued participation of our members,” said James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan, which is based in Peoria, Ill.

Pause for a second.

Yes, trust is -- legally -- crucial. But there's tons of info available about how these plans work in real life. Some plans also offer different rates for different levels of care (take catastrophic illnesses, for example). When they shop around, members also find that many doctors, and in some faith-friendly areas most, also offer major discounts to those paying their own bills. Those discounts, in the plans we have seen, really help individuals and families in these plans.

But I'm not trying to turn this into an ad. The key is that the Times gets the basics right. This is a complex, but fair-minded, report. If anything, it lacks more voices among the liberal critics of these plans and the state officials who are trying to shut them down.

Let's keep reading:

Some ministries operate differently, requiring members to pay monthly into accounts from which funds are disbursed to those with eligible medical bills. 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, membership in sharing ministries has more than doubled over the last six years, to 535,000 from about 200,000, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries. More participants live in Texas than in any other state, according to Samaritan and the two other largest ministries, Medi-Share, based in Florida, and Christian Healthcare Ministries, based in Ohio. Under the federal health law, only members of ministries that have operated continuously since December 1999 are exempt from the requirement to have health insurance.

Doubled in the past six yearss?

Well, yeah. But I'd love to know what has happened in the past SIX MONTHS, for obvious legal reasons in the Obamacare era.

Back to the reality that people are seeing at the grassroots:

Before members can be reimbursed, they sometimes must pay upfront for their medical care -- potentially a sizable outlay, because hospitals increasingly require at least partial prepayment. It then takes at least two months for Samaritan to process their requests for help and for checks from other members to arrive in the mail.
The most harrowing part of health care sharing so far for Kyle Burkholder, the teaching pastor at Grace Point, and his wife, Stefani, was paying $6,500 upfront for their daughter’s ear tube surgery, they said. They waited for what seemed like forever for other members’ checks to come.
“About 90 days after her surgery, sure enough, the money did start showing up,” Mrs. Burkholder said. “And it was with handwritten notes -- every day it was one, two, three notes, and she was reading them aloud, and I found myself just crying.”

What happens when there are problems? The story gets into that, but the problems are extremely rare. How about prescriptions? That's another topic that deserves coverage. How many churches and denominations are joining up? Any colleges and universities?

The Times team makes it clear that some states have tried to shut down these coops, but legislatures have stepped in to protect them. After all, they are helping hold down costs and offering people real choices, if they work together. Real choices are good, right?

As I said, this story caught me off guard. This is solid journalism on a timely topic.

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