They thought they were buying an Obamacare plan. What they got was not insurance.

Tina Passion needed health insurance in a hurry in December. The newly retired 63-year-old moved to suburban Atlanta with her husband to reunite with her grandchildren. Their home in Pittsburgh flew off the market, and they had six weeks to remove their 40-year-old memories.

Passion said he went online to search the Federal Health Insurance Marketplace, clicked on a link and entered his information. He immediately received multiple calls from insurance brokers and bought a plan for $ 384 per month. Although later, when he went to a pharmacy and doctor’s office in Georgia, he was told that he did not have insurance.

In fact, it says right on its card: “It’s not insurance.”

Passione is one of 10 consumers who told KHN they thought they were buying insurance but later learned that their membership had been sold to a Houston-based healthcare sharing ministry called Jericho Share. According to Texas business filings, the ministry was formed in 2021 when the House of Prayer and Life Inc., a half-century-old Christian congregation, adopted the name Jericho Share.

The Ministry of Healthcare Sharing is a trust-based organization whose members agree to share medical expenses. Ministries grew in popularity before the repeal of the Affordable Care Act order for having insurance coverage because they offered a cheaper alternative to insurance. But these are not insurance, basically not regulated in this way and do not necessarily cover the medical bills of the members. Massachusetts is the only state where ministries have to report data regularly, and only half of the claims submitted to those ministries were deemed eligible for payment. This spring, the Colorado Legislature passed similar requirements awaiting the governor’s signature.

The Better Business Bureau gives Jericho shares an F rating, its lowest, and its website shows more than 100 complaints filed in less than a year. The Texas Department of Insurance documents found two complaints about Jericho shares from February and March. The department responded to both by saying that it regulates insurance, not any ministries, and sends them to the state’s attorney general’s office. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

John Oxendine, a lawyer who has been elected Georgia’s insurance commissioner four times and ran for governor as a Republican in 2010, responded to a KHN inquiry into Jericho shares. If membership is sold to consumers in a misleading way, “this is a good way to fire a broker,” he said.

According to a statement sent by Oxendine, “Jericho shares do not tolerate any misrepresentation or immorality in any of its programs.” “Whenever we become aware of inappropriate behavior, we take appropriate action to remedy the situation.”

Consumers can always cancel their Jericho share plans, Oxendain says. Many consumers who spoke to KHN canceled their plans and got their money back, but many said the process was frustrating. Payment for some bills was left to pick up when they thought they were insured. At least seven of the people KHN spoke to said they ended up with Jericho shares after starting their health insurance search on Google.

A Google search for a screenshot "Healthcare market" The federal government's health insurance marketplace, healthcare.gov, lists three ads before the list.
A screenshot taken on May 11, 2022, shows ads from “lead-generating” websites that popped up after googling the “healthcare marketplace”. The most relevant search results are from the federal government’s official health insurance marketplace, healthcare.gov.(KHN screenshot of Google.com)

It’s not uncommon to encounter this type of problem when shopping for health insurance, says Joan Volk, co-director of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. He co-authored a 2021 report that found that “misleading marketing practices” were pointing consumers to alternative health plans, such as the Ministry, which could cost more than market plans and provide less protection.

“It’s especially unfortunate because people are out to buy massive coverage,” Volk said.

Susan Fauman looks at the camera while taking a selfie.  The background behind him is blurry.
Susan Faumann thought she was buying health insurance but later learned that she had bought a membership in Jericho Share, a Houston-based healthcare sharing ministry.(Susan Fauman)

Susan Fauman, 47, a metalworker in Germantown, New York, relied on her wife’s insurance coverage but asked for her own insurance policy before submitting her divorce papers last fall. Fauman said his Google search landed him in a series of “lead-generating” websites in the advertising industry: private webpages that connect insurance brokers with clients.

None of the clients KHN spoke to could say for sure which site eventually linked them to the brokers who sold their Jericho share subscriptions. ObamacarePlans.com and AffordableHealthPlans.org are among the lead-generating websites that appear on Google when someone searches with terms like “Obamacare Insurance” or “Healthcare Marketplace”. These site listings are actually ads that are similar to the typical Google search results but labeled with the word “ads” and placed above the most relevant search results: the federal government’s official health insurance marketplace, healthcare.gov.

Google spokeswoman Krista Muldun said companies that advertise ads in Affordable Care Act research must prove that they are licensed to sell insurance through the federal or state markets.

These marketplaces allow consumers to shop for comprehensive health insurance, let them know if they are eligible for financial aid, and link to consumer enrollment assistance if needed. In contrast, lead-producing websites typically sell personal information provided by customers to insurance brokers and agents who may sell other types of plans.

Faumann said he had inadvertently turned his information into several lead-generating websites. He was soon flooded with phone calls from insurance brokers, he recalled.

Interested in getting insurance, Fauman said he bought a plan for about $ 330 a month, with a $ 99 sign-up fee. He asserted that his confession had been obtained through torture, and that his confession had been obtained through torture. But he didn’t tell her it was a healthcare sharing ministry, he said, or it wasn’t insurance – something he didn’t know how to ask. When he received the Jericho share card with his denial, he thought, “What did I sign up for?”

The ministry and aggressive insurance marketing practices have raised eyebrows before, and the state attorney general of Washington last year issued a consumer warning about “advertising and publishing websites as official health insurance marketplaces.” But Georgetown University’s Volk says large-scale crackdowns will likely require the cooperation of multiple state regulators because states are the default enforcers of insurance rules. The Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against a Florida-based operation in 2018, alleging that it had collected more than $ 195 million by listing “financial plan” consumers. The case is ongoing.

And it’s not always clear who can and should protect consumers in this complex space that covers public and private insurance, interstate commerce, websites and healthcare sharing ministries.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services operate the healthcare.gov website Deputy Administrator Ellen Montaz said in a statement, “When CMS sees an ad we think HealthCare.gov is misrepresenting, we share it with search engines.”

Luis Russo, a spokesman for MediaAlpha, which operates ObamacarePlans.com, said in an email that the company’s code of conduct does not allow brokers who can mislead customers into buying customers. It periodically monitors calls to ensure compliance. He further added that the site has a claim that it is not an official website.

Craig Stargill of Excel Impact LLC, owner of AffordableHealthPlans.org, said that if the company found out that a broker had broken the law or used suspicious tactics, it would cancel the contract and take “further action” if necessary. “As a digital marketing company, we are not necessarily in the business of educating customers deeply about all the options available to them,” Stargill said in an email. “Our role is to engage consumers with advisers who can and should effectively educate consumers.”

Consumer Hemani Hughes said the broker callback number that he corrected the spelling of his name on his Jericho share plan – before it was realized it was a ministry – was listed on the Better Business Bureau and the Utah Insurance Department’s website. Florida-based Prosperity Health LLC. In an email, Samridhi Health’s registered business agent, Ahmed Shokri, said it had “never sold health shares.”

Hughes, a 49-year-old communications strategist from Kansas, said he was sold a Jericho share plan in February when he specifically told a broker that he did not want the ministry’s plan to share healthcare. Hughes said he realized after his call that the broker never mentioned the plan by name, only that he was signing up for a “national PPO” and taking her through a copy.

When Hughes realized it was a healthcare sharing ministry, he said, he called to cancel his plan. Through multiple calls he was met with what he described as “a fantastic manipulating and very rebellious gantlet and retention time of customer service representatives”.

At one point, Hughes said, the people he was talking to told him that it was irresponsible to go without insurance – even though Jericho shares are not insurance in itself.

Tina Passion smiles while taking selfies outside.
When Tina Passione was searching for health insurance online, she entered information about what she thought was an official website for Affordable Care Act plans. After the call flooded, he bought a plan. But when he goes to the pharmacy and doctor’s office, he is told he has no insurance. In fact, it says right on its card: “It’s not insurance.” (Tina Passion)

Hughes outlined his story in a complaint filed with the Better Business Bureau. Jericho shares responded to Consumer Watchdog by saying it was in direct contact with Hughes to protect his personal health information, saying “we are working with the utmost sincerity to investigate this allegation thoroughly.” Hughes is finally back.

Passion said he filed his complaint with the Better Business Bureau after he received no direct response to his doctor’s appointment and payment for the prescription. In March, Pacioni canceled its Jericho share plan and signed up for COBRA coverage with প্র 782 per month through its former employer.

“It’s a little expensive, but at least I know what I’m getting at,” Passion said.

He said he had been promised a one-month payment by Jericho Shares and was waiting to hear if his credit card company could recover the payments made in January and February.

Fauman, who filed a complaint, also received a refund, but spent two months uninsured and avoided calling his doctor while resolving the situation.

“I was terrified of what it was going to cost me,” Fouman said.

He eventually got Marketplace Insurance with the help of a “Navigator”, trained to help anyone enroll in coverage without earning commission. After the subsidy, Fouman’s premium is about $ 95 per month, which costs about $ 2,800 less per year than his Jericho share plan – and his new plan is actually insurance.

Where to buy marketplace insurance
To find a health insurance plan, visit the Federal Marketplace, healthcare.gov or call 800-318-2596.

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