April 26, 2011; Source: KaiserHealth | Are people losing faith that the comprehensive health insurance program that staggered through Congress in 2010 will be enacted? Do they think that the concerted legal challenges by Republican attorneys general and the budgetary attacks by Congressional Republicans will do in the program?

It would be unfortunate if the legislative package falls apart, but some entities are working on solutions to the ever-escalating costs of health insurance that exists now.

Kaiser Health reports on an emerging practice among tax-exempt churches to essentially replace commercial (nonprofit or for-profit) health insurance with a kind of mutual aid among church members. For example, members of the Christian nonprofit called Samaritan Ministries pay a monthly membership fee ranging from $135 for single persons to $320 for two-parent families.

For any medical expenses they incur, the members pay the first $300 and then send the rest of their medical bill to the Samaritan offices in Peoria, Ill. to cover. Those monthly fees might not be sent to Peoria, but to specific families with medical bills to pay. When those members get hit with medical bills, they would be the ones receiving those checks.

Samaritan Ministries is a “health-care sharing ministry,” following the biblical dictate of members’ sharing each other’s burdens. It’s not a small fly-by-night operation, but operating in all 50 states with 56,000 members.

Two other ministries – Christian Healthcare Ministries and Christian Care Ministry – operate similarly, except that they will pool the members’ payments and issue checks from their headquarters to those with medical bills. Together with Samaritan, there are some 120,000 members of health-care sharing ministries.

These are Christian nonprofits, so members must be Christians (sometimes requiring pastors to verify the fact), must not use tobacco or illegal drugs, must not have sex outside of marriage, and cannot seek medical help for any medical expenses attributable to extra-marital sex.

Because they cover members’ medical expenses, much like health insurers do, state insurance regulators are looking to have these ministries regulated like other insurance providers, potentially to prevent their abuse as Ponzi schemes. The ministries cry foul. An effort to regulate Samaritan Ministries in Washington State was immediately met by a bill passed by the legislature to exempt health-care ministries from state government regulation of insurance.

Remember the notion of nonprofit, membership-oriented health insurance cooperatives contained in the federal legislation as the alternative to the “public option?” These ministries seem very similar to the coop model.—Rick Cohen