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Why Desperate Families Are Getting Religion on Health Coverage

When Erica Jackson and her husband decided she would quit her job as a nurse and stay at home with their three kids, they knew they couldn’t afford insurance on the individual market. The family of five, who live in Wichita Falls, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, could already barely afford Jackson’s employer coverage, which cost $900 per month for a plan with a $12,000 deductible.

So Jackson reached out to her insurance broker for alternatives to exchange plans, and he suggested that she and her family would be a good fit for Medi-Share, a nonprofit insurance alternative based in Florida in which members share each other’s health care costs. There was a catch, though. The plan was run by a nonprofit religious ministry.

Because of her experience working in a doctor’s office, Jackson was initially skeptical of the faith-based plans—they aren’t really insurance, and there’s no guarantee they’ll cover medical bills. But as she learned more about the plan, which requires that members don’t smoke or use drugs and doesn’t cover injuries that result from behaviors considered immoral, such as drunk driving, the more she felt convinced that the plan was right for her family.

"The information that they make you go through, such as the beliefs, it was very reassuring,” said the 27-year-old.

Ultimately, Jackson and her husband, an insurance adjuster who works on contract, decided to take a chance on Medi-Share, paying $445 per month. They are also responsible for an additional $3,750 in annual out-of-pocket costs.

Health care sharing ministries have become a more entrenched part of the health care system than anyone could have possibly imagined eight years ago, when they were quietly exempted from Obamacare’s individual mandate penalty. The plans were an afterthought at the time, with only about 150,000 individuals enrolled in the faith-based plans. The exemption was included by Senate Democrats as a seemingly innocuous way to insulate the bill from attacks by Christian conservatives.

In the ensuing eight years, however, enrollment in health care sharing ministries has skyrocketed, particularly in states in which the individual insu