Christian ‘Health Share’ Ministry Left Members With Millions In Unpaid Medical Claims

By Steve Rabey
healthcare health care fraud dollars
A federal court found Aliera, a Christian health share company, marketed sham policies as insurance alternatives and fraudulently made "exorbitant profits." (Photo: Alexander Mils / Unsplash)

Aliera, a now-defunct health care cost-sharing, or “health share,” company founded by a man who served time in prison for fraud and perjury, has itself been found guilty of fraud in a federal class action suit.

On Nov. 29, the U.S. District Court in Kentucky entered judgments of nearly $4.7 million against the company, which declared bankruptcy in July after facing numerous lawsuits, investigations and customer complaints. Aliera representatives failed to appear for multiple court dates.

“Since we first started working with victims of this fraud two years ago, we have had two objectives: to end the fraud and to obtain compensation for its victims,” said attorney Jay Varellas. “With Trinity’s bankruptcy, the fraud is now over and we will turn our attention to recovering funds to compensate those who were victimized.”

“Aliera and its partners have taken advantage of hundreds of Kentuckians, many of whom trusted the company because it professed Christian beliefs,” said attorney Jay Prather.

MinistryWatch has reported on Aliera Healthcare — which operates Trinity Healthshare — since 2019. These reports reflected a growing chorus of complaints and lawsuits against health share groups in 2020. Earlier this year, MinistryWatch reported on Aliera’s bankruptcy and skewering by comedian John Oliver.

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Some 1.5 million Americans choose inexpensive health care provided by more than 100 health share ministries that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — most of them Christian nonprofits — according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, an advocacy group founded by two of the largest providers, Samaritan Ministries International of Illinois and Christian Care Ministry of Florida.

The ministries don’t offer insurance, instead pledging that members’ bills will be paid by other members’ donations. But the industry is unregulated, and providers are fighting to keep it that way, resulting in problems for consumers and challenges for states and the federal government.

In an online FAQ, The Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries offers the following Q-and-A:

Q: Can I trust Health Care Sharing Ministries with my medical bills?

A: Since the 1980’s Health Care Sharing Ministries have shared 100% of eligible medical expenses for their members.

The alliance has defended the industry freedom from regulation as an issue of religious liberty, claiming that government efforts to rein in the industry are actually efforts “to deny Christians and other religious Americans the ability to choose health care that matches their beliefs and their budgets.”

Aliera — which marketed “sham policies” under a variety of names over the years, including Trinity, OneShare Health and Sharity — “realized exorbitant profits” by declining to pay claims and instead retaining 84% of customer donations, in violation of federal requirements. Its problems have rattled the entire health share industry and led to legal challenges and other problems in numerous states.

The federal case against Aliera in Kentucky, which will continue with additional charges to be addressed in the future, is just part of the problems the company faces. It still faces charges elsewhere that were raised before it declared bankruptcy.

A federal lawsuit filed in Atlanta in 2020 claimed Aliera ran a scheme to generate revenue while avoiding state and federal insurance laws.

New York’s Department of Financial Services has alleged Aliera engaged in fraudulent and illegal health insurance activities in that state. A statement said that after declaring bankruptcy, Aliera “dropped its current members and asserted that it had no obligation to pay members’ medical claims, leaving millions of dollars in outstanding claims. … Now, Aliera and Trinity are using Trinity’s bankruptcy filing as a shield against being held responsible for violating the law and paying medical reimbursements owed to consumers.”

In July, Iowa announced that state customers ripped off by Aliera could apply for reimbursement from $90,000 in settlement funds that Aliera was required to pay. “As with any type of health care coverage decision, we strongly encourage consumers to take great care in reviewing the information and marketing materials to ensure they are getting what they are paying for,” said a state spokesman.

The Texas attorney general has also brought a lawsuit against Aliera.

And officials at a Kansas hospital announced in November they would no longer accept health share plans as a means of payment, saying “the fluid nature of these types of programs … create challenges in processing and documentation tracking.” The change is a challenge for health share policy holders.

“Patients participating in any of the health share plans available on the market will now be considered non-insured and therefore expected to pay at the time services are provided.”

Meanwhile, health share ministries continue to market their services to Christian consumers who may be in the dark about the industry’s problems and legal challenges.

A 2022 tour by Christian music acts Newsboys, Danny Gokey and Mac Powell is underwritten in part by Altrua Ministries, an Austin-based health share ministry that markets its plans with this unusual claim: “We are a unique health care sharing ministry that does not require a pastor, elder or representative from a local church to sign an acknowledgement verifying church attendance or validation of medical needs being submitted to the membership for sharing.”

Altrua says it also “allocates the donations of individuals, families and corporations for the purpose of financially supporting various charitable and religious organizations and the research and development of cures for life threatening diseases.”

A Better Business Bureau page lists nearly a dozen complaints against Altrua, some of which were resolved after consumers filed complaints with the BBB.

And Arizona-based Solidarity HealthShare, which says its plan is “based on social and moral doctrine of the Catholic Church,” issued a November press release claiming it was the “first health sharing ministry to offer comprehensive sharing in prescriptions” at “more than 65,000 pharmacies.”

This piece first appeared at Ministry Watch.

Steve RabeySteve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

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7 thoughts on “Christian ‘Health Share’ Ministry Left Members With Millions In Unpaid Medical Claims”

  1. We have been a part of 2 different sharing programs and they have been excellent, with superb customer service. We loved being able to be personally in touch with those who had needs, sending cards, etc. Please do not paint all of them with the same brush. God’s people taking care of one another was the most satisfying experience we could have medically.

    1. Our family used a medical sharing for about a year too. As long as you don’t mind investing considerable time negotiating prices with providers, that program worked. We also had to pay for a surgery up front, but fortunately, got reimbursed. It was a bit stressful, but the plan eventually delivered.

    2. I’d be interested in hearing the names of the two cost sharing groups you have worked with, Laura

      Thank you- Dawn

      1. We were with Christian Care Medi-Share and switched to Samaritan Ministries because of the cost. I had surgery with Medi-Share, and they paid everything but my small deductible. Out of pocket expenses are very minimal. We never had a need with Samaritan, but had a friend who had a widow-maker heart attack and they paid absolutely everything. He didn’t have to pay anything up front, as he worked with the hospital. Samaritan’s turnaround WAS 30 days, which is unheard of in the insurance business almost. We switched to Medicare and a supplement when we turned 65. I hate it, but supposed to cover everything. It’s more expensive. Thankfully we’re healthy, but life changes.

  2. Jonathan Hightower

    We’ve been Samaritan members for more than 5 years and have had no complaints. It does require a bit more up-front work, and you definitely want to know what is and is not covered to set proper expectations.

    I felt “scammed” by Blue Cross Blue Shield with annual plan changes, extreme premiums, poor coverage, and having to pay for 1.5 months of double coverage due to inflexibility with healthcare.gov., and was glad to be able to kick them to the curb. Regulation doesn’t necessarily provide much consumer protection, and it does limit flexibility and typically increases compliance costs.

    I would definitely be wary of sharing ministries with a short history or strange claims like some of the ones highlighted in this article.

  3. We are with Christian Healthcare Ministries and are now, unfortunately, having to put it to the test with a cancer diagnosis. In the past, we gave been adequately compensated for health issues. And the customer service is excellent.

    That said, it requires all the work to be done on your end. You have to have the ability to pay up (or put down deposits), chase after the types of bills needed for submission, and frankly, endure the sad nods of the head when you tell doctors offices you’re uninsured (I prefer the term “self-pay”).

    I’d prefer real insurance because it would make it all infinitely easier navigating the health care maze. But we were self-employed and/or working where insurance wasn’t offered, so there wasn’t much choice.

    But if you have the energy to stay on top of things, it’s very cost-effective.

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