Peoria company offers healthcare alternative with members paying each other's bills

Samaritan Ministries is one of the largest health care sharing companies in U.S.

PEORIA - - As leaders in the nation's capital debate the future of healthcare and the Affordable Care Act, a central Illinois company using an alternative approach believes others can learn from its example. 

"I think we all want the same thing. And that's for everyone to have accessible healthcare that's affordable and a high quality," said Anthony Hopp, senior vice president of external communications at Samaritan Ministries. "The question is how do we do that?"

Members of Samaritan Ministries do not have health insurance, nor are they covered by former president Barack Obama's keystone healthcare measure.

So how does it work? 

Tom Zobrist, pastor and father of five, has not had health insurance for years. But he says his family's healthcare has never been better or more affordable.

"I think people would be shocked if they realized how much you could save by just saying I'm cash pay," said Zobrist. 

Zobrist, of Eureka, is one of 225,000 people nationwide ditching premiums for Christian non-profit, Samaritan Ministries.

"It's not communism. It's commonism," he said.

Headquartered in Peoria, Samaritan operates one of the largest healthcare sharing companies in the U.S. Instead of paying premiums, people pay each other's bills by sending money directly to members with a medical need. Members pay fixed monthly "shares" based on relationship status, such as married or single.

For 11 months of the year, members mail shares directly to other members with medical needs; while Samaritan receives shares one month of the year to pay for administrative costs. In case of medical situations, members notify Samaritan of their illness and costs. Staff, then, coordinates where members should send their money - making sure the number of shares cover the medical need.  Money is only sent when and where there is a need.


"I might not have a medical need now but you do. And I can help with that," said Zobrist.  

"The easiest way to explain it is crowd funding for health care," said Hopp, who joined Samaritan almost two decades ago.  "So when I write my check every month, I'm not sending it to Samaritan, but I'm sending it to a family that has a medical need."

According to Hopp, Samaritan members share nearly $20 million per month among each other and vote on any changes to fixed monthly shares. As many people nationwide complain of premium increases, Hopp says Samaritan payments decreased five of the last six months.


Hopp says Samaritan follows a biblical model of "like-minded people of faith sharing burdens." Members do not just send money, but also cards and prioritize prayer.

"You really get good financial care for your need," said Zobrist. "But you also have spiritual care for that need outside of your circle of knowledge."

Zobrist says he notifies doctors during medical visits that he is part of a health care sharing system and is cash pay. He admits to being anxious at first, but says doctors are more willing to negotiate prices when he pays upfront. He recalls his first medical emergency after joining Samaritan - one of his son's broke a hand. The doctor's office deduce prices by 30 percent.

"I found it to be very well accepted as I've explained it to doctors and hospitals and doctor's offices," he said

Samaritan members are not penalized for refusing health coverage,  which is a federal mandate under the Affordable Care Act. While the future of healthcare remains a topic of discussion in national politics, Hopp thinks Samaritan's success is worth  a look.

"When we talk about referring healthcare, I don't believe it comes in the form of insurance or taxes or mandates. It's when we have a biblical understanding of what generosity means," said Hopp.  "Generosity isn't necessarily taxing a group of people and distributing it to another group of people. That's unjust. What our members are able to do is voluntarily come together, live out their faith, link arms and get something done."

Samaritan Ministries established in 1994 and serves more than 68,000 households. However, membership requirements are very specific. Aspiring members must agree to a statement of faith and receive references from a pastor of a church. Among other commitments, members agree to abstain from drinking or drunkenness, and commit to having sex only in marriage between man and woman - beliefs Samaritans says agree with the Christian faith. 

Read more about Samaritan Ministries and its practices here.




 


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