For Catholics opposed to Obamacare, an alternative emerges

With lawsuits from religious groups against certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act winding their way through the courts, one organization has a message for Catholics concerned about being forced to pay for plans that include contraception: Opt out of the insurance game altogether. Launched last October, CMF CURO describes

With lawsuits from religious groups against certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act winding their way through the courts, one organization has a message for Catholics concerned about being forced to pay for plans that include contraception: Opt out of the insurance game altogether.

Launched last October, CMF CURO describes itself as “the nation’s first Catholic health sharing experience and provides an alternative that respects and protects Catholics’ conscience rights.”

The “Christian sharing ministry” is not health insurance. It’s more like KickStarter or GoFundMe for believers, in which members rely on the goodwill of others to cover their medical costs.

“This is a position of faith,” said David Wilson, a co-founder of the program. “This is saying that I believe in my faith so deeply, that I am willing to expose myself to the provision of resources by God, the faith filled community, and the Holy Spirit.”

The program is part of a small but growing movement of individuals choosing to walk away from the insurance marketplace, often in response to new government regulations that require insurance companies to provide coverage for contraception.

Here’s how it works:

Members receive a monthly newsletter in which medical costs of others members are listed, and CURO members contribute a monthly financial payment that directly covers those costs.

The money is loaded onto a debit card that is used to pay for office visits and hospital stays. If there’s not enough money, the member waits until next month, when there may be more funds available. If not, the member may be eligible to draw from a special savings plan.

But there are catches.

Members agree to attend church “at least 3 times a month,” according to the CURO website, and “to abstain from sinful practices such as drug abuse and sexual immorality,” including homosexuality.

That means if a member contracts HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, the costs won’t be published unless the member is able “to demonstrate that the disease was contracted innocently,” meaning through a blood transfusion or medical procedure, according to member guidelines.

But if it is “contracted sexually outside of marriage, or through irresponsible behavior such as sharing hypodermic needles for illegal drugs,” the member is out of luck.

Additionally, abortion and contraception is not publishable, meaning there’s no opportunity for members to recoup expenses.

Wilson said that aside from an annual letter from a priest or deacon confirming the member is active in the parish, there’s no way to determine if members are living up to the “statement of faith” as published in the guidelines.

One of the primary benefits for members, advocates say, is that it costs less than traditional insurance. Each month, members pay $250 to just under $500 based on family size. This can be much cheaper than traditional health insurance plans, though members are on the hook for all bills lower than $300.

“We’re able to meet the needs for a lot less,” Wilson said. “We don’t have the bureaucracy of the insurance company, we don’t have the bureaucracy of the regulation around the insurance industry to deal with.”

But that freedom from government oversight is a double-edged sword, said Sabrina Corlette, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. Consumers should be careful before dropping traditional insurance for a cost-sharing program.

“It’s very much buyer beware,” she said, noting that members won’t be able to turn to a state insurance commissioner or attorney general in the event they feel they were wronged.

Plus, she said, life happens. “It could be an accident you have because you’re drunk,” she said, referring to the strict morality clause that would make some conditions ineligible for refund.

More than 300,000 Americans are members of these kinds of programs, due in large part to a provision of the ACA that exempts members from paying penalties even though they don’t carry traditional insurance.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, an adviser to CURO, said on a conference call Wednesday that government regulation is threatening to hinder Catholics from caring for the sick and that CURO is one step in addressing this development.

“We live in very difficult times when it becomes more and more difficult to care for those in most need that in the best way possible that is in accord with our faith and our life in Christ,” he said. “There’s an attempt to constrain us in our care of the sick or our care of the poor to do things that are immoral, to do things that are not truly good to those for whom we care.”

Critics say cost-sharing programs like CURO leave members vulnerable in the case of catastrophic medical events, such as cancers or accidents. CURO shares costs only up to $250,000 per event. A single stay in a hospital for something such a bacterial meningitis infection, for example, can easily run well beyond that.

In addition, CURO doesn’t cover costs for pre-existing conditions, including pregnancy. Obamacare closed that loophole, a component of the bill drawing praise even from many of its Catholic opponents.

But Wilson, the co-founder, said additional layers of protection exist, such as a charity option that might list the needs of members ineligible for regular contributions. Samaritan Ministries International, based in Peoria, Ill., and founded in 1997, hasn’t left any members on the hook for medical bills since it was founded, he said.

And Wilson emphasized that the power of cost-sharing health programs like CURO is that members live a certain lifestyle, one that ultimately drives down costs.

“We have people going to church every week, so in reality they don’t have lifestyle behaviors that compound illnesses, and the onset of illnesses,” he said.

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