When their son Sky was born four years ago, Lindsie and Chris Bergevin were hit with a big surprise: $7,000 in bills for the birth that their health plan didn’t cover. Sky was two when the couple jettisoned their medical insurance, which helped them eventually pay off the debt.
Now that they’re ready to have a second child, they’re not going back to their old coverage, with its premiums of more than $350 a month. Instead, they’ve patched together an alternative through a religious group and a primary-care doctor whom they can visit anytime for a monthly fee.
“I was so jaded with the whole health care insurance situation,” Lindsie, 35, says. “I just didn’t want to deal with it.”
The Bergevins, who rent a snug little house near downtown Boise, Idaho, are joining a small but growing number of Americans rigging their own medical safety nets. They’re frustrated by the high costs, opaque pricing, and maddening bureaucracy of health insurance.
In their quest for a different way, they’re meeting doctors like Julie Gunther who are also fed up. These physicians have opted to reject insurance, instead charging patients directly in return for more personalized care.
“I like to think we can protect people in vulnerable moments where they’re going to get lost like a widget,” Gunther said, “because they’re not a widget for us.”
No reliable data exist on how many people are replacing insurance with arrangements like the Bergevins’, but the trend appears to be gaining momentum.
The number of people joining so-called health care sharing ministries—religion-based cost-sharing plans—rose 74% from 2014 to 2016, according to the latest Internal Revenue Service data. An alliance for the groups said that more than 1 million people now participate in such programs. Similarly, primary-care clinics like the one Julie Gunther started in 2014 have grown to almost 900 from just a handful in the early 2000s, according to the Direct Primary Care Coalition, a trade group for the clinics.
The number of people without traditional insurance is expected to increase. The Trump Administration lifted the Affordable Care Act’s penalty for those who go without insurance, while also encouraging the growth of lightly regulated products such as short-term health plans. Proponents of Obamacare fear the administration’s actions will draw healthy people out of the ACA marketplaces, raising costs for those who remain.
Though the ACA expanded coverage to 19 million Americans, some of those gains are reversing. About 28 million remain uninsured. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-research nonprofit, determined that most uninsured families simply found health insurance too expensive.
The Bergevins are one of those families.
Lindsie is a freelance graphic designer who focuses on clients in the craft industry. Chris, 34, is a supervisor at the auto shop the Bergevins jointly own with another couple. Though the business is growing, things were tight enough that Chris didn’t draw a salary until last summer. Last year, the couple took home from $40,000 to $50,000, after taxes.
In 2014, when Lindsie was pregnant with Sky, the couple still had coverage through her job at the Idaho Statesman newspaper.
A calculator on her Aetna health plan’s website estimated the Bergevins would need to pay about $3,000 or $4,000 out-of-pocket for Sky’s birth. When the total bill came, the sum for prenatal care, hospital costs, anesthesia, and other care was triple the estimate.
They were still paying off Sky’s birth in 2016 when Lindsie had surgery to remove her tonsils and correct a deviated septum, leaving them with several thousands of dollars more in bills.
She put the sum on a CareCredit medical credit card and is paying $300 each month toward that debt.
As the couple thought more about it, maintaining their coverage made little sense. They were falling deeper into medical debt, despite having insurance which itself cost thousands of dollars a year. In 2016, Lindsie left her newspaper job to devote herself full-time to her thriving freelance design business—and they went uninsured.
“I couldn’t justify it,” she says. The cheapest policy she could find through the Affordable Care Act, she recalls, was $547 a month—more than half the family’s $875 monthly rent at the time. It had a high deductible that could leave them with out-of-pocket costs of more than $10,000.
“If something were to happen to us, we would have been in trouble,” she acknowledges.
To hedge, the couple bought an inexpensive accident policy from Aflac that would cover some costs from an injury if, for example, Chris hurt himself working.
A friend told them about a small primary-care clinic called SparkMD less than a mile from their house. The doctors didn’t accept insurance. Instead, they offered “concierge medicine.” They charged a monthly fee of $130 per family. That allowed visits as needed without any limits. When Lindsie went to check it out, a physician began with an in-depth conversation about the family’s health.