By Nic Miller, Co-President of the BRI Chapter at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Nic was one of seven BRI Student Leaders who attended the Free Market Medicine Association’s conference in Oklahoma City last month.
Innovators often bring new ideas to the marketplace that can revolutionize the way we do business. One of those innovative solutions in the setting of 21st Century healthcare is the “Healthcare Sharing Ministry” (the official IRS designation; also called “Medi-Share”), an idea that has been around for decades, but is now in the limelight as a solution to rising insurance costs.
On the first day of the FMMA conference, Jeb Struber, communications director for Samaritan Ministries, a Christian “healthcare sharing ministry” spoke on the needs and wants of Samaritan’s Purse subscribers as free market users. Samaritan Ministries (SM) exists as an alternative to health insurance for more than 30,000 subscribers. It’s a model that also exists in the Amish and Mennonite communities where people voluntarily share the burden of the community’s medical bills. Here’s an outline of how the organization is run:
1. A new member must agree to a basic Christian statement of faith, and be in regular attendance at a church.
2. For a family of four, the current “premium” is approximately $400/mo. But instead of sending this money to the organization, each month SM administrators instruct the members to send the premium to a specific family facing a medical need.
3. When facing a medical need, a member family informs SM administrators by sending them a copy of the bill. In turn, SM administrators send instructions to the appropriate number of other members who send their premiums to the family in need. In addition, the other members are encouraged to send cards and pray for the family whose needs are being met.
Healthcare Sharing Ministries are growing in popularity in the US, even in secular settings. They are a low-cost way of insuring patients against large bills, without the bureaucracy and meddling of a profit-taking middleman.
Mr. Struber outlined the core beliefs of Samaritans Ministries at length. It can be summed by quoting the Bible verse “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” He further expanded into the far-reaching economic consequences of a Christian philosophy of liberty and property rights, concluding that Christianity demands an understanding of rights as belonging to individuals by virtue of God, and not by virtue of the state.
Healthcare Sharing Ministries (HCSM) are becoming an increasingly popular option in the landscape of healthcare coverage. Benefits include a dramatically lower cost for high-quality coverage, much less bureaucracy than traditional insurance, and (here’s the key) no one standing between the physician and patient.
Problems exist for these free market users. In the eyes of most providers, these individuals are “uninsured,” and so for purposes of billing, there is often no price transparency whatsoever. Of course, price transparency is something of a unicorn in medical economics, but these users are at a particular disadvantage, as they are typically billed charge master rates and forced to negotiate blindly with powerful hospital billing offices.
The interaction of HCSM patients with hospitals highlights one of the most farcical aspects of modern health billing: resolution of a bill usually involves the hospital offering a discount (often 20, 30, even 40+%) off the Charge Master rate. This SOUNDS like a great discount! But when you consider that these are discounts off of an arbitrarily high number, the discount is meaningless! And of course, the hospital can then report that discount to the government as part of their “uncompensated care pool” and secure a healthy tax break as a result.
In summary, Healthcare Sharing Ministries are growing in popularity in the US, even in secular settings. They are a low-cost way of insuring patients against large bills, without the bureaucracy and meddling of a profit-taking middleman. It will be interesting to see the future of HCSMs play out. Their interactions with free-market players such as the Surgery Center of Oklahoma (and others!) seems to be a near-perfect solution to the problems facing our broken medical system.
You can view a video on Mr. Struber’s talk on the FMMA website.