One Christian Family’s Cost-Sharing Alternative to Federal Health Care

Gary and Sheryl Duff of Omaha, Nebraska, use a religious alternative to health insurance. They participate in Samaritan Ministries, a health care sharing group based in Illinois. Washington Post
Gary and Sheryl Duff of Omaha, Nebraska, use a religious alternative to health insurance. They participate in Samaritan Ministries, a health care sharing group based in Illinois.
Washington Post

“If you are a committed Christian,” the contract begins, “you do not have to violate your faith by purchasing government-approved health insurance.”

Every year, Gary Duff signs an updated version of these 40-page terms, which detail one way Americans can avoid buying private insurance or paying into the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The deal is made possible by a little-known provision in the health care law and the contract has one particularly important requirement: The Duff household of nine must abstain from general debauchery.

Samaritan Ministries, a health care sharing group, will charge its national network to cover the family’s medical bills, but only if they agree to forsake binge-drinking, extramarital sex, illegal drugs and tobacco (with the exception of celebratory, post-birth cigars). The organization describes itself as a “biblical approach” to health care, guided by Galatians 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens.

This appeals to Duff, a 60-year-old former missionary and international business instructor. He and his wife, Sheryl, have home-schooled all seven of their children and taught them to avoid MTV-approved anything.

Samaritan’s rules, however, extend beyond the religious realm to the practical one of saving money. Sinful behavior threatens more than a soul’s entrance to heaven, Duff and his cohorts believe: It damages the earthly body — and amplifies the price of health care.

“Christians are just healthier people,” he says. “Think of all the physical problems we can attribute to a sinful lifestyle.”

The ACA, the Samaritan contract states, is undesirable because it covers costs that “result from immoral practices,” such as STD treatments or out-of-wedlock births. The law creates a moral dilemma for Duff, who now works as an assistant pastor in downtown Omaha.

“Simply put,” he says, “I don’t want to pay for that or encourage it in any way.”

Neither do the estimated 100,000 other Samaritan users. The health care sharing ministry, recognized in ACA as a viable insurance alternative, covers up to $250,000 per “need.” About 37,000 households are in the network.

Samaritan bills itself as non-insurance — and has therefore avoided regulation.

To Duff, it’s a way to preserve some personal liberties while giving up the ones he won’t miss.

It works like this: When illness strikes, Samaritan members can file a request for aid. The ministry fields each request and alerts other members, who are then morally — if not legally — bound to mail checks directly to the sick. Each member commits to a monthly “share” amount, rather than a premium.

The Duff family pays $400. There’s no guarantee their medical bills will actually get covered. They have to front medical costs.

Eleven years ago, Duff maxed out more than one credit card to cover his son’s leg surgery after he broke his femur. The $20,000 need was the most they’ve filed to Samaritan. (But, Duff said, he negotiated a discount for paying that day.)

The repayment system is built on faith.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post – Danielle Paquette

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