Nation Christians helping Christians Concept of Christian health care sharing continues to grow in popularity

By Kelly Jasper

The Augusta Chronicle

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- From a health care perspective, it is a radical idea.

But for a Christian?

"Sharing each other's burdens is what we do," said Danny Armstrong, of North Augusta.

The retired missionary and his wife, Judy, are members of Christian Care Ministry's Media-Share, a community of 45,000 Christians across the country who help pay one another's medical bills.

Media-Share is one of a handful of Christian health-care sharing organizations in the United States. In April, Augusta native Tony Meggs was named president and CEO of Christian Care Ministry.

Since 1993, Meggs said, $465 million in medical bills has been shared among members.

Couples like the Armstrongs commit to living Biblical lifestyles, which include not smoking, using drugs, drinking in excess, or having sexual relationships outside of marriage.

Members contribute an average of $170 per individual or $282 per family a month. The plan doesn't cover routine visits or some procedures, such as abortions.

In November, Medi-Share began recruiting new members in Georgia and South Carolina with advertisements on Christian radio stations such as WAFJ-FM (88.3) in North Augusta.

The Florida-based nonprofit currently has more than 1,700 members in Georgia and 1,400 members in South Carolina.

The radio spots advertise the fact that Medi-Share members are exempt from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the new health-care law that requires most Americans who can afford it to purchase insurance by Jan. 1, 2014, or pay fees.

Meggs stressed that while Medi-Share can help Christians manage the costs of health care, it is not insurance. Resources are shared directly between members, and there is no pooling of funds, he said.

Whether Medi-Share qualifies as insurance is controversial in at least one state.

In Kentucky, a circuit court judge issued an injunction in March to keep Medi-Share from operating in the state. The decision followed a 2010 ruling from the state Supreme Court that Medi-Share does, in fact, qualify as insurance.

In November, the Kentucky Department of Insurance filed a motion requesting Medi-Share be held in contempt for violating the injunction, as Medi-Share continues to operate with several hundred members across Kentucky.

According to Meggs, Medi-Share doesn't legally compel its members to help one another with their bills. Each member is ultimately responsible for his or her own bill.

"You have to be willing to rely on the moral collective will of members to share in your medical bills," Meggs said.

For Christians who are self-employed or working with a missions agency, the service is invaluable, Armstrong said.

Armstrong, his wife, and their two children lived in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia as missionaries for nearly 15 years before moving to North Augusta about 11 years ago.

Shortly after their daughter, Joy, graduated high school, doctors found a tumor on the thymus gland in her chest.

"It was just supposed to be a routine exam for college," Armstrong said.

She underwent open-chest surgery in Birmingham, Ala.

Medi-Share, he said, "stepped in and took care of all of that. They negotiated with the hospital on our behalf. We paid maybe $95 for everything."

While their monthly share is close to $400 a month, the thousands of dollars they saved in that one instance convinced them that Medi-Share was worth it, Armstrong said.

"I can't even remember how many thousands of dollars that was," he said.

But it wasn't the only time he relied on Medi-Share for substantial help. Four years ago, he ruptured a disc in his back.

"I was able to see a specialist," he said. "It was affordable. That was the whole reason we signed up for Medi-Share. We needed reasonable coverage for medical needs. And we like the idea of Christians meeting the needs of other Christians."

The concept of Christian health care sharing is continuing to grow and expand in popularity, said Meggs, 50.

Meggs, who graduated in 1980 from the now-defunct One Way Christian High School on Belair Road, still has family in Augusta and Evans.

He'd like to see the program expand locally.

"Last year, we grew (nationally) a little over 20 percent," he said. "Over the last three years, our nation has endured a lot. With the economy the way it is, we've seen a lot of growth."

Medi-Share, he said, isn't for everyone.

"Sometimes we're called as Christians to do something a little differently," he said. "We're to be in the world, but not of the world."

Published: Mon, Jan 9, 2012