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How many families have been screwed over by Christian “health insurance” companies that only the most devout believers can buy into?

Christianity Today offers an answer for one of those financial scams: 10,000+ families with unpaid bills totaling over $50 million. And that’s just for one company, Sharity Ministries (formerly Trinity HealthShare), which filed for bankruptcy last year.

Some background is useful here to understand how these companies work. Groups like Samaritan Ministries and Liberty HealthShare ask everyone in the system to pay a specific amount into the insurance pool every month… but the companies don’t collect all the cash or send it to health care providers. For a fee, the company simply tells individuals where to send their money (e.g. Bob from Nebraska) and how much to send. If you need something covered yourself, you make a request and the company will send your name to others in the pool.

That’s not really different from regular insurance, but it’s not regulated, not all services are covered, and the providers can cut you off at anytime if you become too expensive to insure. Even worse: If you do something they deem “immoral,” you won’t get any money at all. (Good luck getting that contraception. And you sure as hell can’t cover your same-sex partner.)

So everything is fine… until the moment you need them the most. Many participants don’t realize that until it’s too late.

There have been numerous articles written over the years about customers who were denied help precisely when they expected to receive it. The end result is that Christian insurance companies are just like Christian movies and Christian theme parks: They claim to offer suitable alternatives for secular services… but they’re so much worse than the real things.

In 2020, the New York Times‘ Reed Abelson wrote about how some of those Christian groups were so awful that some states were taking legal action to prevent them from offering garbage plans to residents.

… state regulators in New Hampshire, Colorado and Texas are beginning to question some of the ministries’ aggressive marketing tactics, often using call centers, and said in some cases people who joined them were misled or did not understand how little coverage they would receive if they or a family member had a catastrophic illness.

The article noted that Washington fined Trinity Healthshare and banned it in the state. Even Texas sued Aliera Healthcare, which promoted Trinity’s products. In October of 2020, the state of New York filed civil charges against Trinity Healthshare and Aliera (which marketed the plans) for allegedly offering pseudo-insurance to 40,000 residents over the previous four years.

14 states and Washington, D.C. took action against Aliera before California got in the game earlier this year, suing The Aliera Companies and the family that founded Sharity Ministries. Attorney General Rob Bonta claimed that Sharity Ministries “routinely denied claims and spent just 16 cents of every dollar in premiums on health care expenses.” (By contrast, the Affordable Care Act requires (legitimate) health insurance companies to spend at least 80 cents of every dollar on expenses.)

Even John Oliver of Last Week Tonight spent an episode talking about these faith-based frauds:

The companies’ defense has always been laughable: They’ve said they’re not providing health insurance at all… therefore it can’t be insurance fraud. They’ve also insisted that, since customers have to sign a contract that says it’s not health insurance, everything is on the up and up.

But obviously the customers don’t really understand that. They think they’re getting health insurance from a company that proudly proclaims conservative Christian values. There’s a reason they think that: The companies strongly imply they’re health insurance companies. Just look at what the complaint from New York said:

Respondents aggressively advertise in the national and New York insurance marketplaces that these products are “affordable alternatives for health care” that provide comprehensive coverage, targeting consumers who are uninsured. Every aspect of Respondents’ marketing, notwithstanding their false disclaimers, leads consumers to believe that they have purchased legitimate, comprehensive health insurance coverage.

Members are issued membership cards, and Trinity maintains a network of providers and provides a search function on its website for participating providers for consumers to search.

It’s a bait-and-switch. Just like so many of their churches, these companies lured you in before they told members the whole truth.

This was never insurance. This was gambling. Christians put money into the system with no guarantee that anything would come out on the other side.

Indeed, a year ago, when Sharity’s board members found out the cost of the unfulfilled payments were twice as much as they expected, they filed for bankruptcy… before decided to shut down altogether.

Sharity officially dissolved as of December 2021. Court liquidation documents filed in October 2021 state that the ministry held over $300 million in unpaid member claims.

[Former president and board member Joe] Guarino, who resigned in August 2021, said he had no idea how the amount of unpaid requests went up six times from the original $50 million that the board knew about months earlier. The other four board members could not be reached or declined to comment.

Who knew health care could be expensive…? The irony is that by pulling thousands of people out of the (secular) insurance pool, it becomes even harder for people to get the care they need. That’s all on top of Republican politicians sabotaging and undermining the protections that were written into the Affordable Care Act. The people who likely joined these faith-based insurance ministries were Christians who were duped into believing the ACA (as intended) was bad for them and contained “death panels.” These are people who, to this day, push back against the idea of a public option or “socialized medicine.”

Their ignorance is literally going to kill people because they won’t be able to receive the care they need. The people running these Christian insurance scams knew it and took full advantage of conservative gullibility.

As Christianity Today notes, Aliera was found guilty of fraud last November, forced to declare bankruptcy, and responsible for paying back millions of dollars to consumers. But that won’t cover the actual costs they were on the hook for, which means Christian families who fell for this scam will ultimately pay the price.

There’s a saying among evangelical communities that if you’re going to offer a Christian version of something, it ought to be better. Has that ever been the case? Time and time again, we see pathetic knock-offs. In this case, the faith-based fraud ministries hoodwinked Christian families into thinking they were getting real insurance. They never had real insurance. At a time when many of those same Christians ignored pandemic safety protocols, the scam couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for them.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.