Health care sharing ministries are non-insurance entities in which members “share a common set of ethical or religious beliefs and share medical expenses among members in accordance with those beliefs.” The Affordable Care Act’s rules regarding HSCMs are outlined in Section 1501/5000A(d)(2)(B) of the ACA (starting on page 148).
Although HCSMs are not health insurance and do not count as minimum essential coverage under the ACA, the law grants HCSM members an exemption from the ACA’s requirement that people maintain minimum essential coverage.
To qualify for the exemption under the ACA, the HCSM must have been continually sharing members’ health care costs since the end of 1999 or earlier. As of 2018, 104 health care sharing ministries were certified by the federal Department of Health and Human Services and their members were eligible for an exemption from the ACA’s individual mandate penalty (the penalty still applies for people who were uninsured in 2018, but there will no longer be a penalty in most states starting in 2019, so HCSM members will no longer need to seek an exemption in 2019 and beyond).
Enrollment in HCSMs has soared since the ACA took effect, as healthy individuals look for less expensive options for their health coverage. But HCSMs have pros and cons:
- The monthly amount that members pay is typically much less than the full-price premiums for individual major medical coverage. So for people who don’t get ACA premium subsidies, HCSMs are generally less expensive in terms of premiums.
- HCSM members are exempt from the ACA’s individual mandate. This is different from most of the other alternatives to ACA-compliant coverage. (If you have short-term coverage or a limited-benefit plan, for example, you’re still on the hook for the individual mandate penalty, although it no longer applies after the end of 2018 unless you’re in a state that has implemented its own penalty).
- HCSMs are 501(c)(3) charities, so they are regulated by the IRS and by state attorneys general.
- If you’re not eligible for ACA premium subsidies and are facing the possibility of being uninsured altogether, HCSM coverage is better than being uninsured.
- HCSMs are not regulated by the ACA. The coverage you get will vary from one HCSM to another, but they are not required to cover pre-existing conditions, cap out-of-pocket costs, or cover essential health benefits. And they can still have annual and lifetime benefit caps.
- Membership is limited to people who share a common religious faith, and who agree to a variety of rules for a “Godly lifestyle” including avoiding tobacco, extramarital sex, alcohol abuse, etc. For some, these rules are too restrictive.
- HCSMs are not insurance, and are not regulated by state insurance commissioners. While health insurance plans have a legal obligation to pay insureds’ claims according to the terms of the contract, HCSMs do not have the same time of legally binding requirements, and members cannot rely on their state insurance commissioner to handle grievances.
- When healthy people leave the ACA-compliant market and switch to HCSMs, it results in a sicker, less-stable risk pool for ACA-compliant plans. Since HCSMs often don’t cover pre-existing conditions, it’s typically only healthy people who join them. But those same people sometimes find themselves wanting to switch back to ACA-compliant coverage if they become seriously ill. This dynamic (healthy people leaving, sick people joining) is not conducive to the long-term stability of real health insurance products. So it’s essential for people who can remain in the ACA-compliant market to do so (including everyone who gets premium subsidies to make doing so more affordable).