The Dec. 15 deadline is fast approaching for purchasing health insurance from the state’s two major providers, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care.
It is also the first deadline since 2013 for which Vermonters don’t face an IRS penalty if they choose not to have insurance.
But residents are wondering if a tax penalty is in the works for next year. Lawmakers that passed H.696 in the last legislative session created a state mandate for residents to have health care coverage. The penalty, however, was left to a working group to determine, and that group has yet to deliver its recommendations.
In June, Rebecca Kelley, spokesperson for Gov. Phil Scott, told media after the governor signed the bill that incentives, not penalties, would be a preferable approach for prompting Vermonters to opt in to the insurance system.
Alex Farrell, a 2018 Republican candidate for state Senate in Chittenden County, said he doesn’t think Scott will allow a tax penalty.
“He signed a mandate, there’s no financial penalty,” Farrell told True North in a recent interview. “That’s what’s interesting, and unfortunately I don’t think the word got out enough because the governor said ‘I will not sign this mandate if there’s a penalty.’ So they removed the penalty and he signed essentially a meaningless mandate that will actually act as a data collection tool.”
Vermont has had some of the highest insurance premiums in the nation in recent years. According to a 2016 VermontBiz.com report, Vermont had the second highest overall premiums that year, with only New York costing more. At that time Vermonters paid an average $469 per household for a silver plan, the most expensive silver plan of all 50 states.
That was before further premium hikes each year to follow. This year the duopoly of Blue Cross Blue Shield and MVP again raised premiums. Blue Cross is having its average premium increase by 6.6 percent; MVP’s will go up 5.8 percent.
For those wishing to skip insurance and avoid the prospect of a state penalty, there may be another option for health care coverage. Independent health sharing groups are cropping up that offer consumers alternatives.
Under the federal Obamacare law, members of health sharing groups are exempt from the federal mandate.
Meg Hansen, executive director for Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, told True North that these groups may qualify for the Vermont mandate, but this has yet to be determined. She suggested this might be decided during the next legislative session.
One health sharing group, the Christian Healthcare Ministry, is a nonprofit faith-based Christian organization. For more than 35 years the organization has paid out over $3.5 billion in health care payments. Members join up with others in a commitment to help pay for other members’ health care costs as they arise.
Dan Treat, a South Burlington resident who is a member of the Christian Healthcare Ministry, says the health coverage has similarities and differences in comparison to conventional health insurance. For example, there’s no formal contract.
“This is just a good-faith promise that we will help you,” Treat said.
Like regular insurance, however, there are varying levels of commitment. The premiums are very low — gold members just pay $150 a month with $500 deductibles. One difference is the cost sharing only covers major procedures, not regular check-ups.
The group encourages members to work with hospitals and other providers to negotiate down costs — something that health insurance companies also do.
“It’s the same consideration that regular insurance providers get,” Treat said.
Treat noted that to be a member you must be a church member “in good standing,” which relates to a code of healthy lifestyle behaviors compatible with religious teachings. Members are not forbidden from drinking alcohol, but they have to keep it under control, for example. Other recreational drugs are not OK.
Members can choose any doctor as long as he or she is properly licensed. Treat, who joined in 2010, said he has used the program for minor surgery and testing.
“They are good to their word, they paid what they said they would pay,” he said.
Many health sharing organizations have a religious background, but some may be more lenient than others.
Another option is Liberty HealthShare. On its website the group states, “Our moral, ethical, and religious values compel us to care for and support each other during times of crisis. These Christian beliefs mobilize our actions, and they are the reason we relate to each other in community.”
There is also a section on how they keep costs down.
“We give you the tools to review the treatment you receive, and you approve the costs,” it states.
“We invite our members to let us know ahead of time when they have a medical procedure coming up so we can help them find the best provider for their needs. We then work to eliminate unnecessary costs and procedures by helping members partner with their medical providers to evaluate their care.”