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Democrats re-introduce bill cracking down on Christian "health care sharing ministries"
Faith-based "health share" companies have left many families in medical debt. Democrats are taking action.
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Last year, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill designed to crack down on Christian “health insurance” companies that have scammed upwards of 1.5 million people across the country. That bill didn’t make it to a vote, but that’s no reason to let the issue die away. Sometimes raising the issue repeatedly is the best way to generate support for it over the long-term.
Now Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), the only openly Humanist member of Congress, is giving it another shot.
If signed into law, the Health Share Transparency Act would provide customers with better information so they know what they’re buying into, allowing them to hold Health Care Sharing Ministries (HCSMs) accountable if they fail to deliver on their promises.
It couldn’t come at a better time. Last year, Christianity Today found that Sharity Ministries (formerly Trinity HealthShare), which filed for bankruptcy in 2021, left 10,000+ families with unpaid bills totaling over $50 million. That’s just one company. There are several others just like it.
What are Health Care Sharing Ministries?
Groups like Samaritan Ministries and Liberty HealthShare ask everyone in the system to pay a specific amount into the insurance pool every month… but the companies don’t collect all the cash or send it to health care providers. For a fee, the company simply tells individuals where to send their money (e.g. Bob from Nebraska) and how much to send. If you need something covered yourself, you make a request and the company will send your name to others in the pool.
That’s not really different from regular insurance, but it’s not regulated, not all services are covered, and the providers can cut you off at anytime if you become too expensive to insure. Even worse: If you do something they deem “immoral,” you won’t get any money at all. (No contraception. No coverage for your same-sex partner. Definitely no abortion care.)
So everything is fine… until the moment you need them the most. Many participants don’t realize that until it’s too late.
There have been numerous articles written over the years about customers who were denied help precisely when they expected to receive it. The end result is that Christian insurance companies are just like Christian movies and Christian theme parks: They claim to offer suitable alternatives for secular services… but they’re so much worse than the real things.
In 2020, the New York Times‘ Reed Abelson wrote about how some of those Christian groups were so awful that some states were taking legal action to prevent them from offering garbage plans to residents.
… state regulators in New Hampshire, Colorado and Texas are beginning to question some of the ministries’ aggressive marketing tactics, often using call centers, and said in some cases people who joined them were misled or did not understand how little coverage they would receive if they or a family member had a catastrophic illness.
The article noted that Washington fined Trinity Healthshare and banned it in the state. Even Texas sued Aliera Healthcare, which promoted Trinity’s products. In October of 2020, the state of New York filed civil charges against Trinity Healthshare and Aliera (which marketed the plans) for allegedly offering pseudo-insurance to 40,000 residents over the previous four years.
14 states and Washington, D.C. took action against Aliera before California got in the game in 2022, suing The Aliera Companies and the family that founded Sharity Ministries. Attorney General Rob Bonta claimed that Sharity Ministries “routinely denied claims and spent just 16 cents of every dollar in premiums on health care expenses.” By contrast, the Affordable Care Act requires (legitimate) health insurance companies to spend at least 80 cents of every dollar on expenses.
Huffman points to recent data showing that Health Share ministries “deem only half of members’ health expenses eligible for reimbursement.” That’s because they openly reject coverage for “abortions, contraception, mental health, substance use disorders, chronic conditions, certain preexisting conditions, and even maternity care.”
Even John Oliver of Last Week Tonight spent an episode talking about these faith-based frauds:
The companies’ defense has always been laughable: They say they’re not providing health insurance at all… therefore it can’t be insurance fraud. They’ve also insisted that, since customers have to sign a contract that says it’s not health insurance, everything is on the up and up.
But obviously the customers don’t really understand that. They think they’re getting health insurance from a company that proudly proclaims conservative Christian values.
There’s a reason they think that: The companies strongly imply they’re health insurance companies. Just look at what the complaint from New York said:
Respondents aggressively advertise in the national and New York insurance marketplaces that these products are “affordable alternatives for health care” that provide comprehensive coverage, targeting consumers who are uninsured. Every aspect of Respondents’ marketing, notwithstanding their false disclaimers, leads consumers to believe that they have purchased legitimate, comprehensive health insurance coverage.
Members are issued membership cards, and Trinity maintains a network of providers and provides a search function on its website for participating providers for consumers to search.
It’s a bait-and-switch. Just like so many of their churches, these companies lure people in before telling members the whole truth. This was never insurance; this was gambling. Christians put money into the system with no guarantee that anything would come out on the other side.
That’s why Huffman and his colleagues are trying to fix the problem nationwide.
The Health Share Transparency Act
The new legislation proposed by Rep. Huffman and co-sponsored by Reps. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Sean Casten (D-IL), and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) would try to prevent the worst case scenarios from taking place by doing three things in particular:
Make sure customers know what they’re buying. It would require HCSMs to disclose how they’re different from regulated health insurance products “during the enrollment process.”
Give regulators new data to assess the risk of HCSMs. It would require HCSMs to tell the government their rates of service denials, enrollment, service areas, out of pocket expenses, and complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission. Right now, HCSMs don’t have to disclose any of those things.
Require HCSM brokers to tell customers the whole truth. It would require brokers to let customers know what benefits they would receive up front and tell them if they can get better, more comprehensive coverage elsewhere (like through the ACA, Medicaid, or Medicare). You can read more details about the bill here as well as the actual text.
None of this would stop HCSMs from existing. None of this would interfere with their faith. This is about consumer protection, not religious oppression. Keep all that in mind when some conservative Christians inevitably complain about religious discrimination.
The biggest irony about this bill is that Huffman (a Humanist) and Raskin (a humanistic Jew) are founders of the Congressional Freethought Caucus, which means two secular lawmakers are proposing legislation to keep Christians honest because those Christians can’t do it themselves.
“Health Care Sharing Ministries prey on citizens in search of care, using overt appeals to religion as a veil to avoid criticism and regulation. It is completely unconscionable that an entity would trick consumers into purchasing inadequate health coverage, leaving folks to hold the bag and risk bankruptcy when they need help the most,” said Rep. Huffman. “The threat posed by these unregulated, deceptive Health Shares demands federal action. As consumers begin shopping for health care this open enrollment season, we need to ramp up our efforts to protect them from Health Shares’ predatory practices. And that starts with having accurate information at hand to ensure consumers can make the best choices possible for themselves and their loved ones, which is what our bill would do.”
This bill almost certainly won’t pass under a Republican-controlled House, much less come up for a vote, but the biggest effect of simply proposing this bill is that it raises awareness about the problem. Hopefully potential customers will think twice before falling for one of these faith-based scams. And if Democrats can retake control of the House next year, perhaps this bill will become a law and protect even more Americans.
That can’t happen quickly enough, given that the Christians who are pushing these ministries aren’t interested in the same goal.
The American Humanist Association is urging members to contact their representatives to support this bill. The FFRF Action Fund also praised the bill, saying, “This legislation is a crucial step towards ensuring that all Americans can access health care services without fear of discrimination or religious impositions.”
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)