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Nearly 1 million Americans rely on health care sharing ministries to cover their medical bills. Members of these Christian organizations typically chip in money every month with the expectation that they will be reimbursed when they get treatment. But multiple state regulators have accused one company of violating federal and state requirements. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports on the efforts to rein in one of those companies.
TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Spread out on Keith Meehan's kitchen counter, there's a mess of unpaid bills with very large numbers.
KEITH MEEHAN: Eleven thousand eight twenty-six (ph) for - looks like an anesthesiologist. The surgeon - $18,854. A hospital stay - $150,014.69.
BOOKMAN: Meehan is 49 years old, a divorced dad living in Rochester, N.H. His job as an international rice salesman doesn't provide health insurance. So last year, a broker sold him on a company called Aliera that markets what's known as a health care sharing ministry. It's not traditional health insurance.
MEEHAN: Clearly not, which I've (laughter) come to find out.
BOOKMAN: Meehan signed up. A few months later, he had back surgery. He says Aliera and an entity it contracts with called Trinity HealthShare assured him the procedure didn't need preapproval. But afterwards, it declined to pay close to $200,000 in medical bills, contending his back pain was a preexisting condition.
MEEHAN: I feel like I was sold a bad bill of goods, you know? Just - I had no idea.
BOOKMAN: After receiving a wave of complaints from customers like Meehan, New Hampshire's Insurance Department issued a cease-and-desist order last month against Aliera and Trinity for selling what the state calls illegal health insurance. Earlier this year, regulators in Texas, Colorado and Washington also took action against Aliera. The company declined an interview request, but in a statement, Aliera forcefully denied the allegations and says it will appeal the New Hampshire cease-and-desist order.
Other health care sharing groups say Aliera's actions are harming the reputation of the broader industry. These ministries have seen rapid growth in recent years, in part because of their lower cost.
FENTON GROEN: The cost was typically a fraction, typically well under half and usually closer to a third of what the cost of conventional insurance was.
BOOKMAN: This is Fenton Groen, a New Hampshire contractor who's been a member of a ministry since the early 1990s. He says, along with the savings, many Christians are drawn to ministries because they don't cover abortion services and offer perks like prayer hotlines for their members. Groen says he supports regulators stepping in to stop a company like Aliera if it's violating the law.
GROEN: Given the explosive growth of health care sharing ministries, it's not surprising to me that somebody would try to cut in on that.
BOOKMAN: An investigation by the Houston Chronicle earlier this year noted that the co-founder of Aliera previously served time in prison for securities fraud. The company is facing a proposed class action lawsuit in Washington state for alleged deceptive practices. JoAnn Volk with Georgetown's Center on Health Insurance Reforms says some consumers are drawn to ministries because of the belief that they'll be better taken care of.
JOANN VOLK: There's a lot of frustration with insurance companies and some of the hoops you have to go through to get your health care bills paid. And it feels like it's just another hoop, but at least it's with people that share my beliefs.
BOOKMAN: Keith Meehan, the guy with $200,000 in unpaid medical bills, says he wishes he had done his homework on Aliera.
MEEHAN: I'm not trying to, like, skate on my responsibilities. Had I known that this was the way it was going to turn out, I would have suffered - I can endure some pain, both physical and mental (laughter). But I would have never gone through with the surgery.
BOOKMAN: More pain may be on the way. Meehan says he's considering filing for bankruptcy.
For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman.
(SOUNDBITE OF CODES IN THE CLOUDS' "TIME CREEPS LIKE A THIEF")
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