The faithful are flocking to health-insurance alternative

Plus: Food blogger threatened with lawsuit after negative review; DaBaby gives Charlotte exposure on 'SNL'; Deluxe 'Tin Willy' RV under siege in Belmont

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Enrollment in Christian ‘health care sharing ministries’ explodes as Charlotte families work to avoid high insurance costs; checks and prayers for baby Albert’s surgery

by Michelle Crouch

Imagine this: Instead of paying for health insurance, you join a group of people who share the same values as you, and you all promise to help cover each other’s medical bills.

It may sound risky, but it’s a model that a growing number of people in Charlotte and across the country are buying into.

Fed up with high, constantly rising premiums, they’re ditching traditional insurance and opting instead to join what are called health care sharing ministries. Costs are typically far below the cheapest insurance plans you can buy through the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges. However, unlike insurance, there’s no guarantee that your bills will get paid.

Most Americans receive health coverage through their work or a family member’s work. Those who don’t — including small-business owners, self-employed professionals and part-time or contract workers — have to shop for coverage and are becoming frustrated with the high cost and lack of options. Obamacare enrollment for 2020 ends Dec. 15.

Surging interest: Membership in health sharing ministries has skyrocketed since the ACA went into effect. More than 1.4 million people nationwide are members, up from about 200,000 in 2013, according to industry estimates. In North Carolina, membership has surged 700%, to about 52,000 members today.

The bulk of members are enrolled in one of the big four: Christian Healthcare Ministries, Medi-Share (Christian Care Ministries), Samaritan Ministries or Liberty Healthshare, although there are dozens of smaller groups, says Dave Weldon, president of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries.

Some ministries pool their money then reimburse members or pay medical providers directly, just like insurance. Others have members send checks straight to other members. So someone who has $30,000 gall bladder surgery, say, may get 300 checks in the mail from people all over the country to help pay for the procedure.

Charlotteans Wade and June Byrum joined a Christian sharing ministry a year and a half ago after they learned the premium on their high-deductible insurance plan was going to jump dramatically, to $1,500 a month.

“The sharing plan monthly contribution was a third of that,” says Wade Byrum, an engineer who works on a contract basis. “Sometimes they ask us to consider paying more to help someone. I feel like there’s a genuine-ness to it, a sense that we are part of a community of people helping each other.”

No coverage for ‘immoral’ services: Every program is different, but members typically pay a monthly “sharing amount” that’s like a premium.  They also have to meet a “personal responsibility amount” or “annual household portion” (similar to a deductible) before medical expenses are covered.

Because they’re not subject to insurance regulations, the sharing plans don’t have to cover treatment for pre-existing conditions and often have annual and lifetime limits. They typically don’t pay for screenings, preventative care or prescriptions.

Most also decline to cover abortions, some types of birth control and medical expenses that stem from behavior they consider immoral, such out-of-wedlock births, drunk-driving accidents or any kind of alcohol or drug-related treatment. To join, members must sign a statement of faith. Some require a pastor to verify church attendance.

Complaints about unpaid bills: If you have a problem with traditional health insurance, the state insurance commissioner can help get it resolved. But if you join a sharing group, you have little recourse if a claim is not paid, coverage is denied or the ministry goes bankrupt.

The N.C. Attorney General’s Office received nine complaints about health care sharing ministries in 2019, two in 2018, and one each in 2017 and 2016, a Ledger public records request showed. Most were from members upset about unpaid bills.

One member said her sharing program wouldn’t cover her miscarriage because a doctor had labeled it a “spontaneous abortion.” Others said they couldn’t get their plans to pay despite multiple phone calls over many months.

All of the N.C. complaints named either Aliera Healthshare, which has been accused by regulators in other states of violating legal requirements for the ministries, or Liberty HealthShare, which recently acknowledged problems and vowed to improve.

How to choose: If you’re considering a ministry, look for one that was certified for exemption from the Affordable Care Act, experts suggest, because those groups have been around the longest. Ask to see their annual independent audit, since federal law requires that they have one and make it publicly available. Make sure you read the fine print and understand what’s covered and what’s not.

Mailbox full of checks and prayers: Keiran and Frank Llaneza of Charlotte joined Medi-Share in 2014 after Keiran had her fourth baby and scaled back her work schedule, losing employer-provided health insurance. The family had its first big claim about six months later when doctors performed surgery to remove their newborn’s extra toe. The bill: $17,000.

When the Llanezas applied for coverage, however, they learned the ministry considered their baby’s extra toe a pre-existing condition because the family didn’t join until after he was born.

Keiran Llaneza’s son Albert (left) was born with an extra toe (X-ray, right). The family turned to a healthcare sharing ministry for help.

Dismayed, Keiran got on the phone to Medi-Share. The customer service rep told Keiran about a program to help pay bills ineligible for sharing under ministry rules. She sent Keiran an application and asked her to share her story.

“A few days later, the checks started pouring in,” Keiran says. “People sent scripture and verses and prayers. I’m telling you, we had to return some money because we got too much. We did not pay a single penny for that surgery.”

Michelle Crouch is a freelance journalist in Charlotte who covers health, personal finance and parenting. Her work has appeared in a variety of local and national publications, including Reader’s Digest, Real Simple, Prevention and AARP.


Branding firm sics lawyer on food blogger after negative review

A well-known Charlotte food blogger was threatened with a federal lawsuit by a local branding firm just two days after he wrote a sharply critical review of a restaurant the firm represented.

Trouble started soon after Dion Beary, whose writing has appeared in publications including The Atlantic and Charlotte Agenda, panned chef Jim Noble’s new chicken-sandwich restaurant, Bossy Beulah on Freedom Drive. The review appeared on Beary’s new website, The Penguin Restaurant Reviews.

Two days later, Beary received a note from the owner of the The Plaid Penguin — a marketing and branding firm that specializes in food and beverage — saying its trademark protects the word “penguin” and that “because of that and the high probability of conflict and confusion between what you’ve started doing and what we do as a service business, our legal team has queued up formal documentation to send your way,” according to correspondence Beary shared with The Ledger. The Plaid Penguin counts Noble’s restaurant group as a client, according to a June profile in the Charlotte Business Journal.

Here’s the timeline:

  • Nov. 21: Beary posts an article entitled “Bossy Beulah isn’t good enough to distract from its problematic lineage” on his website, thepenguinclt.com. It pointed out that Noble opposed the Charlotte ordinance allowing people to use restrooms aligned with their gender identity — the move that prompted the General Assembly to enact HB2. “The idea that Jim Noble’s chicken sandwich deserves some kind of benefit of the doubt when he doesn't believe transgender people deserve the same is asinine,” he wrote. He added that “Bossy Beulah is an over-hyped, under-seasoned, disappointment of a sandwich” and that “there is no reason to ever dine at Bossy Beulah.”

  • Nov. 23: Beary receives an email from Joe Haubenhofer, owner of The Plaid Penguin. It says that “over the past few weeks,” The Plaid Penguin and some of its clients “have received several correspondence [sic] confusing your blog/social media accounts as ours.” It points out similarities of the names, threatens legal action and says “my intent or motivation here is not to curb your business but merely to protect mine of 10 years.”

  • Nov. 26: In a letter sent by certified mail, C. Christopher Clark of Clark Law asks Beary to “cease and desist” from using the term “penguin,” which he said “causes confusion.” “The Plaid Penguin is prepared to enforce its trademark rights against infringers through all appropriate legal means,” he wrote.

  • Dec. 2: Beary replies that there’s no confusion between The Plaid Penguin and The Penguin Restaurant Reviews, which does “not accept money, free meals, or gifts in exchange for promotion.”

  • Dec. 6: In a final demand letter, Clark writes: “it is evident that you have not consulted a trademark attorney in this matter. We urge you to retain counsel to represent you because of the scope and complexity of the present trademark infringement issue.” He adds: “Be advised that trademark infringement lawsuits can cost on average anywhere between $120,000 to $750,000.”

Beary relented and has stopped using the name The Penguin. He has moved his reviews to a new site, inside485.com.

“They have no case, but I have no money to fight it,” Beary told The Ledger. But he doesn’t seem intimidated: “Quite frankly I hope this is the first of many salty legal threats from the fake creatives and big money in this city,” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

It’s possible that The Plaid Penguin is legitimately concerned about market confusion and protecting its brand. Trademark law generally prohibits other companies from using protected names when they are in similar industries in similar geographic areas if there’s confusion among customers.

It’s also possible that The Plaid Penguin was annoyed by Beary’s negative review of its client’s new restaurant and sought to teach him a lesson, knowing he probably lacked the resources to fight a threatened lawsuit.

You make the call.

(You can read Beary’s full review of Bossy Beulah here, on his new site.)

[added 12/9/19, 2:45 p.m.]In a statement to the Ledger, Haubenhofer, The Plaid Penguin’s owner, wrote:

As a team of writers, strategists, brand creators, marketers, and designers, our intention is only to respect and celebrate others’ creative work. But, the name of the site was causing genuine confusion within our industry and within our hometown. When an attempt to resolve the issue on a personal level was met with no response, we were left with no other option than to involve our legal team in order to protect not only our name, but our reputation of ten years in the food & beverage industry locally, regionally, and nationally.


Correction: BB&T CEO’s condo

Roswell, not Rosewood: An item in Friday’s newsletter misstated where BB&T CEO Kelly King and his wife bought a condo. They paid $1.3M for a 2,800 s.f. condo on Roswell Avenue in Myers Park, near Myers Park Country Club, property records show — not a condo at Rosewood in Cotswold. Apologies.


City takes dim view of ‘urban glamping’

A Charlotte couple has a hearing this week to appeal a city citation after offering a backyard RV for rent on Airbnb.

According to city records, Kristen and Matthew Wilson were served with a notice of violation from city code enforcement in September because the city says RVs cannot be occupied in single-family zoning districts. The couple lives on Pegram Street in Charlotte’s Belmont neighborhood, between Seigle Avenue and Hawthorne Lane.

Urban Charlotte glamping: This isn’t your ordinary RV. An Airbnb listing refers to it as “Tin Willy,” a “renovated 28’ 1960 Airstream tucked away in a vibrant neighborhood next to Uptown Charlotte.” It rents for $124 a night and is “perfect for an urban glamping adventure in the Queen City.” Guests have access to a sauna, grill and WiFi, and they can also “unwind by the firepit with a growler of craft beer — Birdsong and Catawba are steps away.” Pets are also welcome.

Free Tin Willy? Charlotte code enforcement is cracking down on a backyard RV rental in the Belmont neighborhood. Owners call the RV “Tin Willy.” It has its own Instagram account with 800 followers.

In papers filed with the city, the owners say the RV is not a “dwelling” and that city code permits RVs. They say they have the support of neighbors. The appeal before Charlotte’s zoning board of adjustment is tomorrow.


Reader response

In response to The Ledger’s exclusive Sunday special yesterday, “Huge swath of Dilworth to be gobbled up by developer”:

  • “Sounds like a fait accompli to me. If neighbors have sold and you know what made living there special won’t be there anymore, why would you stay and be miserable? Get paid and get out.”

In response to “The future of Charlotte media is digital and niche”:

  • “When is the last time we got to read that thorough of an analysis about the local media scene with so many varied voices? Never, that’s when! The piece touched on what concerns me most about the fraying edges of mainstream newspapers: not only holding power accountable, but supporting the very idea of civic discourse and democracy by giving us a common canon. We need that more than we think. We should not be off in our own little cul-de-sacs of thought, reading only what we like and what we already know. Whether we believe so or not, we need The Charlotte Observer to be vibrant and strong.”

In response to “Search for your unclaimed money”:

  • “Thanks for your story on NC Cash. I got $60 out of it.”

In response to “Reader: Actually, there are already million-dollar cars in Charlotte; ‘the ultimate rich guy hack,’” which said some people with expensive cars register them in Montana to avoid taxes:

  • “Saw a Lambo with Montana plates at the Ballantyne ABC Store yesterday. Thought of the article you wrote about out-of-state registrations.”

In response to “ALE threatened to haul Whitewater Center CEO to jail”:

  • “One of the best things I have read in awhile! LOVE it.”

  • “Jeff Wise sounds like an interesting person.”

In response to “Nature Museum plans hit buzzsaw of Myers Park opposition”:

  • “I don’t see anything wrong with their concerns. I wouldn’t want people parking on my street every day when parking at the museum runs out. I also wouldn’t want all of the trees in my backyard cut down to expand a parking lot. It’s a NATURE museum and they want to remove trees that are a buffer for people between their house and the park?”

  • “You can’t live next to a signature urban park and not expect there to be events at the park. It’s part of living in an urban neighborhood. What’s next? Are they going to want to run Dilworth Little League out of the park because it is an intrusion in the neighborhood?”

  • “Should have been titled ‘Myers Park residents clutch pearls at thought of undesirables in area.’”


Charlotte exposure on ‘Saturday Night Live’

Charlotte rapper DaBaby was the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, where he performed the song “Bop” while wearing a Charlotte Hornets jersey.

In brief:

  • School board secrecy. School board chairwoman Mary McCray on why CMS hasn’t said why it forced out the last two superintendents: “You give them the option of how they want to do this.” (WFAE)

  • Charlotte lawyer in Miss Universe: “Charlotte lawyer Cheslie Kryst, the reigning Miss USA, was edged out of the Miss Universe pageant during the competition Sunday.” She made it to the top 10. (Observer)

  • SouthPark sidewalks: The City Council tonight is expected to approve a $1.2M contract to improve sidewalks on Sharon Road at Fairview Road and at Morrison Boulevard.


Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:


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The Charlotte Ledger is an e-newsletter and web site publishing timely, informative, and interesting local business news and analysis Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, except holidays and as noted. We strive for fairness and accuracy and will correct all known errors. The content reflects the independent editorial judgment of The Charlotte Ledger. Any advertising, paid marketing, or sponsored content will be clearly labeled.

The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.