JACKSON TWP. — In 2018, Liberty HealthShare distributed more than $300 million to help members pay medical bills.

The operation, which organized in 2014, has grown because members see it as an answer to government requirements — since canceled by President Donald Trump — that they carry health insurance.

Liberty HealthShare isn't a health insurance company. It's a Christian ministry that shares money members have provided to help them pay bills.

Over the past two years, however, some members are complaining that bills aren't being addressed quickly or even paid, leaving them hounded by collectors.

More than 30 complaints have been filed this year with the Ohio attorney general's office and the Ohio Department of Insurance. A string of complaints can be found on the Better Business Bureau's website, while poor reviews and complaints also show up on several social media sites.

Larry Foster, chief executive officer of Liberty HealthShare, said during an interview in June the complaints were being addressed.

He cited the operation's rapid growth along with problems generated by new computer systems and software as factors contributing to reimbursement issues.

"It will be a blip on the radar six months down the road," Foster said.

 

Health sharing

 

The concept of health sharing predates modern health insurance plans and is rooted in biblical scripture. Groups have cited Galatians and the Gospel of John in the New Testament. The idea is for Christians to help each other and share their burdens.

Foster said modern health share services started in the 1990s. He said the idea grew from an incident in which a pastor and his family were involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. People around the country heard of the pastor's problem paying medical bills, and some began sending money. The bills were paid within 45 days.

The concept evolved from there. Health share members pay a set amount each month, comparable to a monthly premium. When a member faces a medical expense, it either is paid by Liberty or the member pays the cost and seeks a reimbursement.

Liberty's website lists the share amount for singles at $299 per month, couples at $399 and a family at $529. People younger than 30 pay $50 per month less. Bills are paid after members pass the annual "unshared" amount, comparable to a deductible, of $1,000 for an individual, $1,750 for a couple, and $2,250 for a family.

It takes two months to become a full-fledged member. Foster said that if a member suffers an accident or needs emergency treatment, they can share from the start. Otherwise, members must wait 60 days before they can share costs for routine treatment.

Of the money paid to Liberty, no more than 12% is used to cover administrative costs, Foster said. The remainder is shared among members to cover health bills.

Liberty's job is to facilitate the sharing and to help members protect their sharing power, Foster said. "Everything that comes in to share goes out," he said.

 

Clean living

 

Foster said Liberty members aren't required to be affiliated with a church, but are asked to attest to their Christian beliefs.

Liberty targets a population that is healthy, living a clean life and making the right choices, he said. "The expectation is our members are going to make healthy choices."

Members are asked to provide information about their health. They shouldn't smoke, use drugs or drink excessively.

Because it is a health share and not an insurance company, Liberty isn't required to cover a member with a pre-existing condition. Foster said members might be asked to participate in a health tracking programs to help them quit smoking, lose weight or address issues that might help a member improve his or her health.

There is a focus on body, mind and spirit, Foster said.

 

'Dale's dream'

 

Foster lived in Indianapolis and worked for Comcast, a telecommunications company involved in broadcasting and the internet, when he was contacted by Stark County residents Dale Bellis and Drudy Abel in 2013.

Liberty HealthShare was "Dale's dream," Foster said.

The organization's website states it began in 1995, but it incorporated in Ohio as Liberty HealthShare in 2014. The initial operation is called Gospel Light Mennonite Church Medical Aid Plan with an address in Stanardsville, Virginia.

Foster said Bellis was researching the Affordable Care Act and saw health share ministries were included in the law. Foster, meanwhile, had started an end-of-life ministry and a Church of the Nazarene.

The ministry connected Foster with Bellis and Abel, now Liberty's chief operating officer. Bellis wanted to expand the health share concept and make it widespread. Foster joined the effort, and Bellis eventually aligned with Gospel Light Mennonite Church.

Bellis and Abel led Liberty as the organization transferred operations from Virginia to Ohio. Foster was one of five board members, along with Bellis and Abel.

In May 2018, Liberty's board announced Bellis' retirement and named Foster to succeed him as CEO. Foster said his time on the board, business experience with Comcast and own ministry work led to his taking the helm.

"I think with the right processes, right people, we could accomplish a lot of things for our community," Foster said of Liberty.

 

Rapid growth

 

Bellis and Abel launched Liberty from an office on North Main Street in North Canton. It moved to 4845 Fulton Drive NW in Jackson Township in 2015. Two years later, it bought the former IT center for Citizens Savings Bank at 4455 Hills & Dales Road NW in Jackson Township.

Liberty has more than 350 employees split between the two locations. Corporate offices are in the Fulton Drive building, along with specialized call center operations.

The Hills & Dales building is a full-fledged call center. A painted portrait of Bellis hangs in the lobby. An open room is filled with dozens of employees decked out in telephone headsets at work stations. Wall-mounted monitors track data concerning incoming calls.

Since organizing as Liberty HealthShare, the ministry has grown to serve 97,000 households and more than 230,000 members.

In 2017, Liberty shared more than $67 million between members to help pay medical bills. The next year, Liberty shared more than $300 million. Earlier this year, the ministry was sharing more than $30 million each month, Foster said.

Some members, however, wonder where the money is going.

Complaints to state agencies cite delayed payments or outright refusal to pay a bill. Members have said telephone calls and emails go unanswered and that rates are increased with little notice.

Members are pushing for Liberty to pay bills that range from a few hundred dollars to nearly $10,000. Complaints cover everything from routine procedures that Liberty promised to cover to bills for the delivery of a child.

Several complaints ask that Liberty be investigated.

Roughly half of the complaints have been resolved with bills being paid, according to the attorney general's office. The state agency cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into the complaints, a spokesman said.

Figures filed with the IRS show the salaries for both Bellis and Abel climbed substantially in recent years. According to the most recent Form 990 filings, which are filed by many tax-exempt organizations, the pair earned $110,828 and $75,714, respectively, in 2015. By 2017, those figures rose to $191,970 and $136,375.

Foster, serving as a director, received $1,657 in compensation in 2015 and no compensation in 2016 or 2017. He was the only director listed as receiving compensation. The 2018 filing was not available.

 

What members say

 

Members said they joined Liberty because it offered rates lower than what they were seeing on the ACA exchanges. Plans also offer broader coverage that other health shares, for example paying for preventative medical procedures.

Michelle Cloutier, who lives in Florida, had been a member of a different health share, but switched because Liberty offered coverage for preventative treatment, in addition to the lower cost.

But Cloutier filed a claim to pay one of the covered preventative procedures and problems started. The bill was rejected, and she was told her primary insurance should cover the cost. Cloutier, however, never had primary insurance; she only had the Liberty plan. She spent months trying to get Liberty to pay the bill, then filed a complaint with the Ohio attorney general's office.

"I just tried everything because I had these two bills lying around forever," she said.

After filing with the state, her bill quickly was paid.

Cloutier no longer is a Liberty member. Because she likes the health share concept, she said, she returned to her previous carrier.

"Health share ministries do work if everybody there tries to make it work," Cloutier said. She is eligible for traditional health insurance through her employer, but prefers health share plans because they match her personal beliefs.

Utah resident Heidi Dunfield said her family opted for Liberty HealthShare after hearing about the plan from a family member. Dunfield is self-employed and liked Liberty's low cost compared with plans on the exchange.

Dunfield said she researched Liberty and found good reviews. Her family had few health problems, and Liberty appeared to address their needs. Her early experience with Liberty was positive, so she recommended the plan to others.

Problems started late in 2017, she said, after her husband needed to visit an emergency room. Dunfield believed the hospital bills would be paid, but that didn't happen. Soon she was hearing from collection agencies, saw delinquencies on credit reports and even had a summons delivered to her home by a constable, she said.

"It was kind of a nightmare," Dunfield said, noting her problems started before Liberty began telling members about issues with computer systems.

Dunfield said calls to Liberty representatives didn't help resolve issues. "It was almost as if none of the employees were empowered to do anything."

Additionally, she started seeing similar complaints on websites. In April, she filed a formal complaint with the state AG's office, which started a review. According to the attorney general report, the problem has been resolved.

Dunfield said Liberty moved faster to address issues and pay bills after she filed her complaint. While the bills have been covered, it took a year to be reimbursed, and she said she still has other unresolved issues with Liberty.

Liberty does seem to be catching up, Dunfield said. She still is a member, but the family added a separate insurance plan for her husband. She is concerned about how Liberty would address bills if her family is involved in an accident or is hit by a sudden and serious medical crisis.