Spread out on Keith Meehan’s kitchen counter is a mess of unpaid bills with some very large numbers.
“$11,826 for, it looks like, an anesthesiologist,” says Meehan, flipping through the bills. “The surgeon: $18,854. The hospital stay: $150,014.69."
Meehan, 49, is an international rice salesman living in Rochester. His job doesn’t provide health insurance, so last year, he reached out to an insurance broker who told him about a company called Aliera that markets what’s known as a health care sharing ministry.
Sharing ministries have Christian roots: like-minded people agree to pool their money together each month, and when someone has a medical bill, the expectation is the ministry will help cover the cost. Many of them even offer prayer hotlines.
It is not traditional health insurance.
“Clearly not, which I’ve come to find out,” says Meehan.
About six months after signing up, Meehan underwent back surgery to correct a disc issue. He says Aliera and an entity it contracts with called Trinity HealthShare assured him the procedure didn’t need pre-approval, but afterwards, it declined to pay close to $200,000 in medical bills, contending his back pain was a pre-existing condition.
“I feel like I was sold a bad bill of goods. I had no idea.”
Last month, the New Hampshire Insurance Department ordered Aliera and Trinity to stop doing business in the state. The move came after the department says it received 39 complaints about the companies’ practices. The state is also accusing them of a list of violations, including failing to make its religious affiliations clear, and selling plans outside of the markets allowed by statute.
Aliera and Trinity have approximately 1,400 customers in New Hampshire, just a fraction of the nearly one million people now enrolled in ministries nationwide. Ministries have grown, in part, because of their lower sticker price.
“The cost was typically a fraction, typically well under half and usually closer to a third of what the cost of conventional insurance was,” says Fenton Groen, a former state senator from Rochester who has been happily enrolled in ministries since the early 1990s.
He says along with the savings, many Christians are drawn to the groups because they don’t cover abortion services.
Groen says he supports regulators stepping in to stop companies like Aliera and Trinity if they are violating the law.
“Given the explosive growth of health care sharing ministries, it is not surprising to me that someone would try to cut in on that,” he says.
Other health care sharing groups say Aliera’s legal troubles are harming the reputation of the broader industry.
Aliera declined an interview request, but in a statement, it vigorously denies the allegations that it’s selling illegal insurance, and says it will appeal the New Hampshire cease and desist order.
It’s also been deploying high powered officials to work on its behalf. That includes the state’s former insurance Commissioner Roger Sevigny, who retired just last year.
“I got to know about Aliera because of doing a little consulting,” Sevigny told NHPR during an interview last month.
Visitor logs for the Insurance Department’s headquarters in Concord obtained through a Right to Know request show that in July, Sevigny and another Aliera consultant had a meeting with Sevigny’s replacement, Commissioner John Elias.
Then in September, Aliera added Sevigny to its Board of Directors. In a press release, Aliera said he was brought on to help the company “communicate more effectively with regulators.”
“They asked me to join the board. I believed in them, and I said yes,” said Sevigny.
A week after joining the Board, the visitor logs show that Sevigny and an Aliera employee were back at the Insurance Department in Concord for another meeting with Commissioner Elias.
The agenda for these meetings isn’t clear. A month later, the Insurance Department issued a cease and desist order against Aliera.
The department says its decision was based in part on complaints from consumers for issues including claim denials, dissatisfaction and questionable marketing practices.
One of those complaints was from Keith Meehan, the rice salesman with $200,000 in unpaid medical bills. He wishes he had read the fine print before signing up.
“I’m not trying to 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. But I would have never gone through with the surgery,” he says.
More pain is on the way. Meehan says he’s considering filing for bankruptcy.