When Jeff Masters had $30,000 in medical bills after getting bladder cancer, he didn't pay through conventional insurance. Instead, he had thousands of fellow Christians foot the bill.
Masters, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, is part of a growing number of Americans who are members of faith-based "health sharing ministries" where members directly pay for each others' medical bills. Members also pray for each other, and a "get well" card from a stranger isn't uncommon.
National health care reform will force millions of Americans to buy insurance or face fines, but a little-noticed provision excludes people like Masters who belong to such groups.
For $533 a month paid through Medi-Share, a service of Melbourne-based Christian Care Medical Sharing, Masters gets coverage for himself, his wife and two daughters. That's almost one-third what the self-employed financial planner once paid for insurance.
Medi-Share members agree to a "biblical lifestyle" that includes regular church attendance and no sex out of marriage. They agree to healthly habits: no smoking or illegal drugs and no alcohol abuse. Abortion and birth control are not covered. Members who are overweight can be denied coverage. The fit ones get discounts.
"It's a way to motivate people who are on the same page in their beliefs to take care of themselves and be proactive in their health," says Masters, who attends Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale.
Each month, money is automatically withdrawn from his bank account to pay the expenses of other members, and he gets a statement telling him who he has helped. Recently, that included a middle-aged man with the stomach flu and a woman who had just given birth. When he checks his account online, he can see prayer requests for the sick.
"I like that I am supporting my Christian brothers and sisters," said Masters, who joined Medi-Share a decade ago.
Health care reform will require most people buy health insurance by 2014 or face a fine of $95 for individuals and $285 for families, or 1 percent of income, whichever is greater. That fine rises to $695 for individuals and $2,085 for families or2.5 percent of income by 2016.
Health-sharing ministries are not considered insurance -- Medi-Share is a registered nonprofit -- but thanks to some aggressive lobbying on behalf of such health organizations in Congress, members will bypass any insurance mandate or fines.
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