The economic and social chaos caused by the pandemic has shown the strength and innovation of Christian health care cost-sharing ministries.
That’s the fervent belief of Evelio Silvera, vice president of communications and government affairs for Christian Care Ministries’ Medi-Share program in Melbourne, Florida. In the past year, Medi-Share processed or discounted bills of more than $1 billion for its 400,000 members.
“This model of approaching medical costs, this innovative model of health care sharing, it showed itself,” Silvera said. “If in 30 years it hadn’t shown itself to be legitimate, it showed itself [during the pandemic].”
The ministries have been around for years but grew in popularity after the passage of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010, which included at the time a penalty for failure to sign up for health insurance. Christian health care ministries were exempt.
Health care sharing ministries are not insurance but plans in which members pay a monthly amount that goes toward other members’ approved medical bills.
Medi-Share had to respond quickly when the pandemic hit, Silvera said. Fortunately, in 2016, its members voted to approve the use of telemedicine, which Silvera prefers to call “virtual visits.”
Before the pandemic, Medi-Share averaged about 3,700 virtual visits a month. Since the pandemic, that number has jumped to more than 7,000.
“Our team was fully remote in 48 hours, and that speaks to the agility of the organization,” Silvera said. “Within 48 hours we were fully remote and our members didn’t miss a beat. A lot of that had to do with the fact that we view ourselves as innovators in the health care space. We already had a lot of solutions in place.”
Medi-Share and Samaritan Ministries of Peoria, Illinois, have about 700,000 of the 1.5 million members of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries. Membership was about 200,000 before the ACA.
“Our ministries have not reported any sort of increased expenses during the pandemic year,” said Katy Talento, the executive director of the alliance. “If anything, a lot of people were unfortunately not getting or able to get routine care done.
“That is one of the concerns the medical community has had about this season. We certainly encourage people to continue their routine care as much as you can. Much of our ministries facilitate access to some sort of telemedicine option and share in telemedicine expenses. We tried to beef that up as best we could.”
Silvera said Medi-Share started a mental health service during the pandemic to deal with the distress caused by isolation and social distancing. “That’s something you can do when you already have the infrastructure in place,” Silvera said. “It was easy for us to adapt and scale and be responsive to our members.”
As one would expect from ministries that require its members to be regular church attendees with strict rules of acceptable behaviors and treatable claims, the health care sharing ministries believe prayer to have been an important aspect of their mission.
“Here is a community where we are lifting each other up as Christians and sharing each other’s burdens, mentally, spiritually and physically,” Silvera said. “What we did see was an increase in members calling, not to ask about their bills, not to ask about sharing, not to ask anything in particular about their account. They were calling in seeking prayer. We saw the impact and the influence.”
Talento said some ministries had a surplus because members steered clear of seeking medical treatment amid COVID concerns. One ministry sent $100 checks to each member as a refund of sorts during the pandemic.
“It is a ministry model,” Talento said. “It is healthy and because it is consistent with how humans really are, we’re not caught in a corporate machine, especially when our health care is so wrapped up in our psychological and spiritual wellness, which has been so under siege during the pandemic.
“Our ministry members and the ministries themselves are uniquely positioned to weather this storm well.”
Talento said membership has grown during the pandemic, partly because she believes more people are starting their own businesses from home and traditional insurance is too expensive.
Christian Healthcare Ministries of Barberton, Ohio, one of the largest in the nation, charges anywhere from $172 a month for a family membership to $78, depending on the minimum payout. The company said on its website that the Gold level plan would increase to $205 a month on Jan. 1, 2022, but that all bills more than $500 would be paid in full with a maximum bill of $125,000.