Sept. 28, 2009— -- Thousands of Evangelical Christians are turning to faith-based alternatives to health insurance. These plans work, in some ways, like regular insurance -- there are monthly payments and deductibles. They're much cheaper than most insurance plans.
But some say they're taking advantage of the faithful.
When Scott and Rachel Kramer, gospel music makers from outside Peoria, Ill., discovered that their son, Weston, had autism, they spent $30,000 on early-intervention therapy.
All of it was paid for by strangers -- fellow Christians who sent checks, cards and prayers.
"Sometimes it was just a simple note saying even though we don't know you, we want you to know that we are thinking of you and we are certainly going to pray for your son," said Rachel Kramer.
The Kramers belong to something called Samaritan Ministries, one of three large Christian health plans, where members cover each other's major medical bills. There are estimated to be more than 100,000 evangelical members of these plans nationwide.
"I find it to be a more superior model than what the health insurance industry does because it's personal," said James Landsberry of Samaritan Ministries. "We have a community of people. We're taking care of one another."
To join, you have to be a church-going evangelical who promises not to smoke, drink heavily or have extramarital sex.
But there's a catch. There are no guarantees that your medical bills will be paid, because these Christian plans are not technically insurance and therefore are not regulated by the government.
"You're exactly taking it on faith, and that's why I don't believe this is for everyone," said Landsberry.
"When they are paying for these programs, there are no guarantees that a claim will be paid. There is no certainty or protection for the consumer," said Michael Mcraith, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance. "Faith alone will not solve the problem."
Christian Health Insurance
There have been abuses. A jury in Akron, Ohio, found the leaders of one church plan spent members' money on cars, houses and vacations.
"These are companies run on a cash flow basis so that claims are paid on available cash, not based on any contractual obligation," Mcraith said.
Samaritan has never been accused of irregularities and says it has a disclaimer on all of its materials alerting members to the risks.
"I don't think we're taking advantage of anyone. First thing we do is make sure everyone understands completely," said Landsberry.
And the Kramers say they get a benefit that many in regular insurance do not -- the power of prayer.