Samaritan Ministries is an organization of devout Christians who eschew traditional health insurance to pool their money and cover each other's catastrophic medical bills. It's one of the very last mutual aid societies in the U.S., in which a community of individuals with shared beliefs band together to form a voluntary social-safety net. A century ago, an estimated one-third of American men belonged to mutual aid societies, but most faded away with the expansion of the welfare state.
Three years ago, I travelled to Samaritan's headquarters in Peoria, Illinois to learn more about this remarkable organization.
In the story that came out of that trip, I predicted that Obamacare would lead to the demise of Samaritan and two similar organizations in the U.S. This model, I thought, wouldn't be able to compete with the heavily subsidized plans soon to become available on the new health-care exchanges.
Wow, did I get that wrong. As The New York Times reported recently,
[M]embership in sharing ministries has more than doubled over the last six years, to 535,000 from about 200,000…The growth seems to have come largely through word of mouth, at churches, schools and workplaces.
The Times story also notes that Samaritan added about 50,000 members just last year, swelling its total to about 200,000. When I covered the group in October 2013, it had 86,000 members. I didn't foresee Obamacare's disastrous rollout and the extent to which new mandates would drive up premiums and leave customers seeking out cheaper options.
Saving money isn't the only priority of Samaritan's members. The opportunity to help their fellow Christians is something these men and women deeply value. "Instead of wanting to be part of an insurance company, I wanted to be part of something where the body of Christ was banding together and doing what the bible commanded in a more personal and real way," Samaritan's Executive Vice President James Lansberry told me in an interview.
Will exploding demand for Samaritan's services lead other like-minded individuals to form their own health-care mutual aid societies? Unfortunately, no, because Obamacare won't allow it. The Affordable Care Act includes language that exempts members of health-care sharing ministries from the individual mandate, but it's written to insure that that exemption only applies if the organizations they belong to existed prior to the law's passage.
Here's my original story: