'No more faith-based than Satan himself': Houston Chronicle digs into health-sharing ministry

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Even before the Houston Chronicle’s investigative piece on a Christian health care cost-sharing ministry was published in print — at the top of Sunday’s front page — the newspaper got action.

To the tune of $129,000.

The dead-tree version of the story notes:

On Tuesday, the day this story appeared online, an Aliera claims director called Martinez and said the company had reversed its previous denials and would pay the entire claim.

But that decision does nothing to blunt the power of this hard-hitting piece of journalism, which presents the “ministry” profiled as — to use the words of the main source quoted — “no more faith-based than Satan himself.”

Christian health-care sharing is a topic we’ve covered before at GetReligion — here, here and here, for example. Elsewhere, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt wrote about the future of that approach back in 2017.

The Chronicle story does an exceptional job of detailing the concerns about Trinity Health-Share, Aliera Healthcare’s affiliated health-sharing ministry.

The opening paragraphs set the scene:

DALLAS — When David Martinez switched jobs, he was suddenly without health insurance for the first time in his life. For months, the businessman searched for an affordable plan until a broker steered him to a Georgia company promising comprehensive coverage for about one-third of the cost of other plans.

What Aliera Healthcare was peddling was not insurance, but rather connection to a Christian health care cost-sharing ministry, an obscure but growing type of coverage based on the biblical principle that the like-minded should help each other in times of need. Members contribute monthly into an Aliera-administered fund to help pay their future medical bills.

It sure sounded like insurance to Martinez. Or close enough. And, as a Christian, he figured any company marketing faith should be more trustworthy. He signed up in April 2018 and began paying Aliera thousands of dollars. The only problem: The plan turned out to be worthless. He now owes $129,000 in medical bills currently in collections.

As similar cases have surfaced across the country, regulators in several states, including Texas, are taking action against Aliera, accusing the 4-year-old company of fraudulently selling insurance without a license — a charge Aliera denies. But the story runs deeper, emerging as a tangled tale of broken deals, politics, religion, prison and, of course, money. And it is unfolding at a time when the nation’s health insurance regulations are steadily unspooling.

Martinez became ensnared when his wife underwent urgent surgery and Aliera refused to pay, denying the claim multiple times and asserting that Megan Martinez had apre-existing condition, even though her doctor said she did not. Further, since Aliera is not technically insurance, it is not bound by laws that would require coverage under the Affordable Care Act, nor does it fall under much other oversight.

An expert quoted by the Chronicle attempts to put the case in context:

“It really is an extraordinary case,” said Jo Ann Volk, a research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms, who has been watching from afar. “There are completely legitimate health-sharing ministries out there, but there are others that are taking advantage of this wild west of insurance we are living in now.”

This story rightfully focuses on Aliera.

However, that focus results in a story that perhaps puts all health-sharing ministries in a negative light.

While the expert quoted up high says there are “completely legitimate health-sharing ministries out there,” the Chronicle doesn’t mention any of them or quote anyone associated with such a ministry.

The result is a story that really nails Aliera — and I have no problem with that. But perhaps there is room for the Chronicle in future reporting to explore the issue in a more well-rounded fashion and see if this is a case of one bad apple or a system itself that is broken in all cases.

I’d also love to see a little more emphasis on the religion angle itself. For example, it would have been nice to learn more about Martinez’s and how this experience has affected it or not.

Photo by JAFAR AHMED on Unsplash

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