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They thought they were buying Obamacare plans. What they got wasn’t insurance.

Tina Passione needed health insurance in a hurry in December. The newly retired 63-year-old was relocating to suburban Atlanta with her husband to be closer to grandchildren. Their house in Pittsburgh flew off the market, and they had six weeks to move out 40 years of memories.

Passione said she went online to search for the federal health insurance marketplace, clicked on a link, and entered her information. She promptly got multiple calls from insurance brokers and bought a plan for $384 a month. Later, though, when she went to a pharmacy and doctor’s offices in Georgia, she was told she did not have insurance.

In fact, it said it right on her card: “THIS IS NOT INSURANCE.”

Passione is one of 10 consumers who told Kaiser Health News (KHN) that they thought they were buying insurance but learned later that they had been sold a membership to a Houston-based health-care sharing ministry called Jericho Share. The ministry formed in 2021 when House of Prayer and Life Inc., a half-century-old Christian congregation, assumed the name Jericho Share, according to Texas business filings.

Health-care sharing ministries are faith-based organizations whose members agree to share medical expenses. The ministries grew in popularity before the Affordable Care Act’s mandate for having insurance coverage was repealed because they offered a cheaper alternative to insurance. But they are not insurance, largely not regulated as such, and don’t necessarily cover members’ medical bills. Massachusetts is the lone state that requires ministries to regularly report data, and only about half of claims submitted to ministries there were deemed eligible for payment. This spring, the Colorado legislature passed similar requirements that await the governor’s signature.

The Better Business Bureau gives Jericho Share an F rating, its lowest, and its website shows more than 100 complaints filed in less than a year. Texas Department of Insurance documents show two complaints, from February and March, about Jericho Share. The department responded to both by saying it regulates insurance, which ministries are not, and forwarding them to the state Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to KHN questions about the status of the complaints.

John Oxendine, a lawyer who was elected four times as Georgia’s insurance commissioner, responded to KHN’s inquiries made to Jericho Share. He is currently facing federal charges of conspiracy to commit health-care fraud that he said are unrelated to Jericho Share. He denied any wrongdoing. If Jericho memberships are being sold to consumers in misleading ways, “that’s a good way for a broker to get fired,” he said.

“Jericho Share does not tolerate any type of misrepresentation or unethical conduct on the part of its programs,” according to a statement sent through Oxendine. “Whenever we become aware of inappropriate conduct, we take appropriate action to remedy the situation.”

Consumers can always cancel their Jericho Share plans, Oxendine said. Many consumers who spoke to KHN did cancel their plans and receive refunds, but several said the process to do so was frustrating. Some were left to sort out payment for bills they incurred while they thought they were insured. At least seven of the people KHN spoke with said they ended up with Jericho Share after beginning their health insurance searches on Google.

Encountering such issues while shopping for health insurance is not uncommon, said JoAnn Volk, codirector of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. She coauthored a 2021 report that found “misleading marketing practices” were directing consumers to alternative health plans, like ministries, that can cost more than marketplace plans and offer fewer protections.

“It’s especially unfortunate because people have set out to buy comprehensive coverage,” Volk said.

Susan Fauman, 47, a metalsmith from Germantown, N.Y., relied on her spouse’s insurance coverage but wanted her own insurance policy before submitting her divorce paperwork last fall. Fauman said her Google search landed her on a series of what the advertising industry calls “lead-generating” websites: nongovernmental webpages that connect insurance brokers to consumers.

None of the consumers KHN spoke with could say with certainty which site ultimately connected them to the brokers who sold them Jericho Share memberships. ObamacarePlans.com and AffordableHealthPlans.org are among the lead-generating websites that show up on Google when someone searches with terms such as “Obamacare insurance” or “healthcare marketplace.” Those site listings are actually advertisements that resemble ordinary Google search results but are labeled with the word “Ad” and are placed above the most relevant search result: the federal government’s official health insurance marketplace, Healthcare.gov.

Google spokesperson Christa Muldoon said companies that advertise on searches related to the Affordable Care Act must prove they are licensed to sell insurance via the federal or state marketplaces.

Those marketplaces let consumers shop for comprehensive health insurance, tell them whether they qualify for financial assistance, and connect consumers with enrollment assistance, if needed. By contrast, lead-generating websites typically just sell the personal information provided by consumers to insurance brokers and agents who can sell other types of plans.

Fauman said she unwittingly put her information into what turned out to be several lead-generating websites. She was soon inundated with phone calls from insurance brokers, she recalled.

Eager to get insurance, Fauman said, she bought a plan for about $330 a month, plus a $99 sign-up fee. She said the broker — who, she later realized, never named the plan — said she’d have basically no copays and no restrictions on where to get care. But he did not tell her it was a health-care sharing ministry, she said, or that it wasn’t insurance — something she didn’t know to ask about. When she received her Jericho Share card with its disclaimer, she thought, “What the hell did I sign up for?”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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