Many Christians simply follow a herd mentality when it comes to healthcare. If the company they work for offers an insurance plan—especially if it's an already included benefit—they fall in line and join the plan. But more and more, Christians are learning about and adopting the type of healthcare sharing programs Anabaptist believers have followed as a matter of conviction for generations. Today, about a million people in the U.S. have signed on to participate and pay for such programs.
Anabaptists, who are generally of Amish or Mennonite persuasion, do this as "a part of the warp and woof of the Anabaptist lifestyle," said Dale Bellis, founder and chairman of one of the largest Christian healthcare sharing organizations, Liberty HealthShare, based in Canton, Ohio.
"We, as Liberty HealthShare members, do this because of our convictions," Bellis said. "The Bible says, 'Bear each other's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.' We have a spiritual and moral obligation to care for each other in the body of Christ in this way. And how else can we do that than utilizing healthcare sharing to know what medical burdens we can participate in? As a matter of conviction and conscience, we do healthcare sharing."
As a national spokesman for Liberty HealthShare, Bellis has been and continues to be a guest on Christian radio shows and podcasts. He occasionally speaks at churches and at political events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, and the libertarian FreedomFest event. Both his organization and the larger movement are growing.
"It grew from just a handful of participants to nearly 100,000 households today," said Bellis, speaking of Liberty HealthShare. "It represents about 240,000 individuals in all 50 states. We're sharing about $25 million of medical bills every month."
To administer the program, Liberty HealthShare employs approximately 280 staff in its office in Northeast Ohio. It also maintains a satellite office dedicated to communications in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and another in Lebanon, Indiana, that assists plan participants and other concerned parties in end-of-life planning.
Enter the Affordable Care Act
Although a segment of the church had been engaging in sharing health costs for years, the lay of the land changed significantly with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act under President Barack Obama. The ACA, or "Obamacare," as it is commonly known, changed the way the health-sharing entity Gospel Light Mennonite Church Medical Aid Plan Inc. did business.
"The Affordable Care Act said if you're going to share medical bills together, you have to register with Health and Human Services as a 501(c)3 entity," Bellis said. "So it was under the terms of the ACA that we reorganized the Medical Aid program and sought that 501(c)3 status."
Liberty HealthShare's founder had been involved with administering healthcare benefits and healthcare payments for over 30 years.
"I was a staff member with the very first healthcare sharing ministry that began in 1982," he said. "I left there in 2001 to launch my own company where I administered healthcare benefits for employers. It's referred to as a TPA, a third-party administrator, and it administered self-funded employer plans for about 12 years."
It was at that time in Bellis' career that the federal government instituted ACA.
"With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, it just hit me, frankly, like a ton of bricks," Bellis said. "There's got to be a way for men and women of faith and values not to be so intruded upon by the federal government demanding that their dollars be used in ways that would certainly violate their conscience."
Bellis and other believers who hold such convictions were concerned about abortion and many other medical practices contrary to their Christian faith.
"Assisted suicide is an issue in multiple states," he said, also citing "elective sex-change operations" and "cases relative to high-risk lifestyles where folks both endanger themselves and abuse their bodies in ways that really violate our sense of Christian stewardship over our bodies. All of those issues are matters of conscience. We are really advocating Congress to both protect, and particularly preserve, this option of healthcare sharing for believers across the nation."
When ACA launched, Bellis decided to use his experience to address this concern for his fellow believers.
"I began to look for ways that we could really address that issue, began to do my research, kind of melded together a couple of decades of my experience with healthcare sharing as well as with self-funded employer groups and launched Liberty HealthShare in 2012."
The Gospel Light Mennonite Church Medical Aid Plan, which was founded in 1995, was relaunched and reorganized as Liberty HealthShare, which received its recognition as a nonprofit organization in 2014.
"We relaunched just after the passage of the Affordable Care Act under the terms of the ACA for healthcare sharing ministries and just basically invited the nation to come join us in this methodology for meeting healthcare costs that Amish, Mennonites and others have patterned their support and care for one another over the generations," Bellis said. "It's a Mennonite congregation that basically said, 'Here's our model. Please make it available for others. It's a bit of a historic move for Mennonites to offer their ministry to others of like mind to come join them.'"
When ACA was passed, the law included a federal definition of a healthcare sharing ministry.
"It exempts all the members of a recognized healthcare sharing ministry from both the fines for not having insurance as well as from the mandates of the Affordable Care Act," Bellis said. "So healthcare sharing really took on a life of its own—even though it was popular and growing throughout all of the '80s, '90s and early 2000s—with the passage of the ACA and its imposition, frankly, of onerous government requirements regarding, particularly, conscience issues."
More Christians joined Liberty HealthShare and similar ministries "as a significant way to both protect conscience as well as fulfill our stewardship responsibilities of both our finances and the stewardship of our relationships to one another by meeting healthcare costs," Bellis said. "We heightened awareness that this is an alternative methodology for meeting healthcare costs."
Under the ACA, he said, there are a little more than a hundred healthcare sharing organizations registered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"The vast majority of those, though, are small sharing congregations in the Anabaptist tradition," he said, noting that there are just a "handful of multidenominational sharing ministries." He added that in terms of size, Liberty HealthShare is third out of the top five ministries.
Rewarding Good Health
Bellis believes America needs to change its healthcare payment system. In his 2017 CPAC speech, he referred to the healthcare crisis that "has not gone away, and in fact, for many Americans it's gotten worse."
Because "a faceless, nameless bureaucracy" pays our medical bills, he said patients "have no skin in the game." He is calling for "a complete paradigm shift" because America now has a "sick-care model" where "the third-party pay system rewards providers for treating your illness."
Bellis points to the billing problem in American healthcare.
"That billing problem is evident whenever we say to a provider, 'I don't have insurance. I'm a part of a healthcare sharing ministry. That's how I will pay my bills in association with my fellow members.' And they will say, 'Oh, it's not going to an insurance company. Well then instead of x, the cost for this particular service is y.' And it's far less than what would ordinarily be paid by an insurance company," he said. "That just simply displays the disparity in billing in America today from providers and hospitals between what is paid by insurance and what's paid by self-pay patients."
Naresh V. from Tampa, Florida, is one member who agrees that healthcare billing is a problem. Engaged to a physician, Naresh is a 29-year-old online entrepreneur who found the costs of an ACA plan prohibitive.
"With LHS, you know there's a higher chance a doctor will be charging the correct amount for the care," said Naresh in a Q&A on the Liberty HealthShare site.
Liberty HealthShare takes a good hard look at the bills its members receive.
"We examine those bills, evaluate them according to a national database as to what's a fair and reasonable reimbursement for those bills, and around 97 percent of all doctors and hospitals will accept that payment from our members," he said. "We negotiate the remaining 3 percent and resolve it one on one with the providers, but we evaluate what's a fair and reasonable reimbursement or payment from our members for those costs. We typically see a 50 to 60 percent discount off of the billed charges for our members."
Once a Liberty HealthShare member fully takes hold of the principles behind healthcare sharing, the member's commitment grows.
"The first problem is to really bring a member to the awareness that it's their dollars; it's not some far-flung company with a reserve account somewhere," Bellis said.
The member is receiving dollars from the pockets of fellow members who are paying for that individual's medical bills.
"Once an individual grasps that, it truly transforms and changes the mentality about healthcare consumption, because it brings about a certain sense of moral dependence upon one another," Bellis said. "They're utilizing the funds of those fellow members, and that just changes the consumption mentality."
Sharing for Better Health
Marcia W., a chef from New Jersey, believes the most important facet of the program is how Liberty HealthShare encourages members to live out biblical values.
"What I love about membership with Liberty HealthShare is the way you encourage us to take control of our own health," she said. "Together we live into the truth that our lifestyle choices directly affect our health, our pocketbooks, our spiritual lives and our happiness."
For those who want to join the community, Liberty HealthShare offers three program options, the most popular of which covers eligible medical bills up to $1 million per incident. Liberty HealthShare asks its members to set aside a recommended share amount per month to their secure online account.
"At present, it's $299 for a single, $399 for a couple, $529 for a family of three or more [for its most comprehensive program], and that goes into our secure online account, but then it's matched to another member who has medical bills, so you literally see your dollars flow to that other person," Bellis said.
The money is going to another member, not to Liberty HealthShare, except for $24 per share that is used as an administrative fee to help facilitate the program.
"Each of our members has what we call a ShareBox, and through that online technology, one's share is then directed to another member who has medical expenses that month," Bellis said, noting the organization's significant investment in technology. "You can message them with cheer, encouragement or prayer, and so we are really making connection with each other during those times of medical expenses. We literally see our dollars flow from our online account to theirs, so we always know where our money is going."
Liberty HealthShare hears from its members how important it is help other believers in need.
"They realize their money is going to another living, breathing individual, and they're helping to change other people's lives as a result," Bellis said.
If a member is not able to or does not continue to fund his account, Liberty HealthShare will reach out to the member to learn more.
"We monitor their participation in giving and work with members if they fall behind in their monthly participation." Bellis said. In some cases, life circumstances change or a member needs to withdraw from the program. "But that's pretty rare, and we're growing significantly every month."
In alignment with ACA, Liberty HealthShare "must have a set of shared ethical or religious beliefs," Bellis said. "Those belief systems are really what makes healthcare sharing unique. And we must share our medical bills according to those beliefs. ... We do not require a statement of faith or ask what church you attend or what your doctrinal beliefs are. But so long as you agree with our set of shared Christian values, and you affirm those, you are welcome to join with us."
Living Out Biblical Stewardship
Liberty HealthShare members can choose their own healthcare providers because the plan does not use networks or PPOs.
Those with pre-existing chronic conditions enter the program under provisional status and must join Liberty HealthTrac, through which they get help from a health coach.
For instance, Liberty HealthShare accepts smokers in the program, but they "have to commit to quit," Bellis said. Those who are healthy, lead a healthy lifestyle and agree with the member community's Shared Beliefs (libertyhealthshare.org
/do-i-qualify) qualify to join.
Bellis pointed to the positive changes health coaching makes in members' lives.
"We are seeing great transformation take place in people's lives as a result of our HealthTrac program and health coaching for conditions that are particularly responsive to lifestyle change: high blood pressure, heart disease, certainly Type 2 diabetes, obesity, smoking, cholesterol," he said. "All of those are chronic conditions that are responsive to the way we live, eat, exercise, sleep and reduce stress."
The Liberty HealthShare program stands for patient empowerment and biblical stewardship.
"We want to empower our individual members to control, manage and direct the care of their health, and that's a part of our shared values," Bellis said. "We're creatures of God and are given the responsibility for caring for our physical bodies, and we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to care for our health as well as control and manage that in our stewardship before God."
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