WASHINGTON — Millions of Americans filing their 2014 taxes next year have to prove to that they have health coverage or pay a hefty penalty on their taxes. But Catholics now have a new alternative to the escalating financial and moral predicaments of health insurance under Obamacare, with the creation of the first-ever Catholic health-care sharing ministry.

On Oct. 2, the Christ Medicus Foundation (CMF) and Samaritan Ministries International (SMI) held a press conference in Washington to launch a new initiative called CMF CURO (from the Latin “to heal”) that fulfills the health-care requirement of the Affordable Care Act, but in a way that is both affordable and consistent with Catholic teaching.

“We’re really excited to launch CMF CURO, because we think it will be quite a change in Catholic health care,” CMF CURO Director Louis Brown said at Thursday’s launch event.

Under the Affordable Care Act, individuals are exempt from the health-coverage mandate without purchasing insurance policies if they belong to what the government recognizes as “health-care sharing ministries” formed before 1999, such as Samaritan Ministries, a Christian health-care sharing ministry.

Health-sharing ministries are unique, in that they operate differently than traditional insurance providers and are not subject to federal or state contraception and abortion mandates. Instead of sending premiums to a third-party provider, the members of a health-sharing ministry have a set monthly portion (based on household type) called their “share,” which they send directly to another member who has a medical bill published by the ministry. The collected shares are then used to pay that members’ medical expenses.

“You’re sending it directly to the individual in need, not a company, so you know where the money is going,” Brown said.

He added that the new initiative between CMF and Samaritan “will allow Catholics to practice their faith, utilize affordable access to health care for themselves and their family, protect religious liberty and the individual right of conscience and, most important, affirm the gospel of life.”

The launch of CMF CURO as an option for Catholics is timely. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reported Sept. 15 that insurance companies were widely ignoring rules designed to prevent federal funds from subsidizing abortion coverage.  

 

Christ-Centered and Consumer-Driven

More than 300,000 Americans belong to recognized health-care sharing ministries, where members share the yearly burdens of more than $200 million in health-care costs, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries.

The new Catholic health ministry’s members will be part of Samaritan Ministries International, the largest Christian health-care sharing ministry with more than 37,000 households or 125,000 Christian members.

As a member representative of SMI, CMF CURO excludes sharing of medical expenses from procedures at odds with Church teaching, such as abortion, sterilization and in vitro fertilization. But the health-care sharing model also touts advantages over the health-insurance model, where increasing premiums, high deductibles and limitations on doctors and procedures come into play.

“One of our principles is that health care should be consumer-driven,” said Anthony Hopp, Samaritan Ministries’ director of membership development. “You shouldn’t have government, the insurance company or anybody telling you what to do for your family — you should make those decisions.”

Hopp said SMI does “due diligence” with cost comparison, but the goal is to make sure it is “very easy for a member to get the kind of care they want.”

Brown said that CMF CURO has “no network” of preferred health providers, making it far more portable than traditional health insurance. Instead, members choose their own health-care providers, and the final medical bill is sent to Samaritan Ministries for approval.

“Someone could be in Paris, Geneva or Timbuktu; as long as we can translate the bill, they get the health-care cost-sharing,” he said.

 

How It Works

CMF CURO members are part of the SMI sharing ministry, but they have some unique benefits over other Samaritan members.

Members get a VISA debit card that doubles as their CMF CURO membership card. Medical-service providers submit the bill to the health-sharing ministry’s pricing administrator, which prices the services at 125% of what Medicare pays. Expenses over $300 are published for sharing, and the received shares are directly deposited into the debit-card account.

“All this is half or less the cost of traditional health insurance through an insurance company,” said CMF co-founder David Wilson, explaining that it could fit the needs of the uninsured, the self-employed, small-business employers or those seeking an option to supplement their Medicare.

The cost-sharing burden depends on household type. For example, an individual over age 26 has a monthly sharing contribution of $264 a month, while a two-parent household pays $489 a month.

Unlike insurance companies, the health-care ministry’s members must vote to approve any increase of the set monthly share amounts.

The program works by making members directly responsible for health costs up to $300, such as preventative health maintenance. Expenses between $300 and $250,000 are published for sharing among members. During the year, members are responsible for paying the first $300 of their first three sharable needs, but any reductions in price they can negotiate against that initial $300. All medical expenses for needs after that are 100% shared.  

CMF CURO members are also enrolled in the SMI Save to Share program, which can provide additional protection for medical needs exceeding $250,000. The CMF CURO fund will meet members’ unshared expenses not covered up to $1,000,000 or help pay for treatments not covered by SMI, such as NaPro natural fertility treatments.

“We really believe it is sustainable, affordable health care,” Wilson said.

He said that 80% of health-care costs are driven by lifestyle, and members of churches have generally proved healthier than the general population.

Membership in CMF CURO requires that a pastor certify one is a practicing Christian who goes to church at least three times a month. Non-Catholic Christians can join as well, but all members are expected to refrain from smoking — barring the special occasion — and any immoderate consumption of alcohol.

CMF CURO also comes with online tools for health and wellness management, health assessments and nutrition and exercise tracking tools.

 

Prayer

A key feature of health-sharing ministries is that members are asked to pray for the other members to whom they are sending their monthly share to pay for those medical needs.

Brown said they want to build on that, with plans to form a call center for members in need of prayer.

“God willing, over the next six months, we’ll be building a team of volunteers that will be able to pray with people and ask the Lord’s intercession and blessing for them,” he said.

The pre-registration began Oct. 2, and the enrollment period begins Dec. 15 to have membership by Jan. 1, 2015.

Michael O’Dea, the founder of the Christ Medicus Foundation, said that with the HHS contraceptive mandate, Catholics will have few other alternatives for obtaining health care that completely adheres to Church teachings. While dioceses may be able to get religious exemptions from the mandate, Catholic small-business employers do not have that luxury.

O’Dea said he believes faithful Catholics will welcome the new option that CMF CURO provides.

“We think, once they get educated, they’re going to want to be part of this program.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.