The Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved Senate Bill 1100 Tuesday, legislation intended to legally define private, nonprofit health care sharing organizations, and to distinguish them from insurance companies.
“We are not providing insurance,” noted Joe Guarino, from the Alliance of Healthcare Sharing Ministries. He testified to the committee that “our organizations are private, nonprofit, voluntary charitable groups. As a matter of consumer protection, we’re asking that Idaho Code define organizations like the ones that we represent.”
Health care sharing ministries (HCSMs) are private, nonprofit groups that provide a health care cost sharing arrangement among persons of similar religious beliefs and faith commitments. HCSMs are not-for-profit religious organizations that act as clearinghouses for those who have medical expenses and those who desire to share the burden of those medical expenses.
“Over 800 households in Idaho are currently participating in a health care sharing ministry right now,” noted Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood. Nuxoll told committee members “over 22 states have laws that define these organizations in state code, and we’re seeking a law of that sort for Idaho.”
According to Nuxoll and Guarino, the federal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) exempts members of HCSMs from the federal mandate of buying health insurance. “We have never had health care providers go unpaid by our members,” Guarino told the committee. “Quite honestly, we’ve never had any complaints.”
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, questioned Guarino about the similarity for his services to mainstream insurance. “You ask people to make application for your ministry,” he said. “Application is an insurance industry term. If you’re not providing insurance, why do you require people to make application to it?”
Guarino responded that “Many groups require application, senator. But insurance requires the transfer of health care expenses to a third party. We don’t do third-party transfers. Members who apply and are accepted into our groups share one another’s health care costs, and the costs are dealt with between the health care provider and the patient, without third-party involvement.”
Cameron, who is president of his own insurance agency, pressed further with questions. “Your application asks an applicant for their family medical history,” Cameron said. “If you’re not providing insurance, then why are you asking an applicant for such information?”
“The ministries that we represent need to know what kind of potential liabilities they may be assuming,” Guarino replied.
“I’m an attorney, but I’m here speaking to you mainly as a husband and a father,” said Boise resident Chris Brown during open testimony. “My wife and I have raised our kids as members of an HCSM, called Samaritan Ministries. Participation in these groups requires a level of trust, and I was skeptical at first. But I have had nothing but positive experiences with Samaritan Ministries for 13 years and I’m asking for your support of this bill.”
Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, touched on the idea of the power of prayer in his support for the legislation. “Speaking from an Evangelical Christian perspective, it may be that asking about one’s medical history is to encourage prayer as a preventative measure,” he said. “I think that anytime we can get government out of the way so ‘the big c,’ the church, can do its job to care for people, then that’s a good idea.”
“Believe it or not, there are many aspects of this that I find refreshing,” Cameron noted. “But here’s why I am having heartburn. Samaritan Ministries may be doing it well, but other groups may not. I would prefer that there was additional language in the bill to make it perfectly clear that these ministries are not insurance companies.”
“I believe the bill stands just fine as it is,” Nuxoll said.