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Lawmakers Back Health Cost-Sharing Ministries

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

For some, health care is biblical.

And the Florida Legislature wants to keep it that way.

A state House committee on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that could help boost enrollment in health cost-sharing arrangements offered by non-profit religious organizations.

The bill (HB 1021), sponsored by Rep. Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, would benefit some large health-care ministries, including Melbourne-based Christian Care Ministries and its health care cost-sharing program known as Medi-Share.

Last year, Medi-Share, which promotes itself as “God-honoring healthcare” served 300,000 members nationwide who agreed to attest to a “statement of faith” that, among other things, said the Bible is “God's written revelation to man and is verbally inspired.” Those who obtain coverage agree to not use illegal drugs, alcohol or tobacco and refrain from having sex outside of marriage or abusing legal drugs.

Members of ministries such as Medi-Share pay monthly membership fees or contributions. According to Med-Share’s website, the share is matched monthly with other people’s medical bills. Members know each month whose “eligible” bills they are helping to pay. 

Enrollment in the ministries has grown since passage of the federal health-care law commonly referred to as Obamacare. That’s because the law contains a provision that exempts ministries that meet certain requirements from having to comply with the law, which banned insurance companies from medically underwriting and required them to provide access to birth control.

To that end, Altman’s bill would update Florida law to mirror federal requirements. The bill would broaden current law, which limits participation to people who share the same religious beliefs, to include people with the same set of ethical or religious beliefs. Altman’s bill also would update state law to require the ministries to conduct annual audits.

He told members of the House Health & Human Services Committee that updating the law provides “one more tool in the toolbox.”  Meanwhile, three Senate committees have approved a corresponding bill (SB 660), which is ready to be considered by the full Senate.

Dave Weldon, a physician and former congressman who is president of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, said membership in the arrangements has ‘grown substantially” since the federal health-care law passed and that there are 968,662 people nationwide participating, including an estimated 56,000 Florida residents. Medi-Share, which is one of the three largest health-care sharing ministries nationwide, had revenues of $90.3 million in 2017, an increase from $61.5 million in the previous year.

Weldon attributed the growth in membership to people who are ideologically opposed to requirements of the federal law, which required insurance companies to offer a comprehensive set of benefits, including contraception, although the Trump administration has rolled back the requirement.

Rep. Jason Brodeur, a member of the House committee, agreed with Weldon’s perspective. He said health-care laws are so “jacked up” that the Legislature is having to amend Florida’s insurance laws to spell out that alternative options can be made available to consumers without running afoul of regulations.

“It totally makes sense, so I am totally up on it and I think it’s silly we have to do it but that’s how screwed up our health care system is,” Brodeur said.

Altman at times struggled during the committee meeting to explain the difference between cost- sharing ministries and traditional insurance policies. Once, Altman described the ministries as an option for people who want to “share their insurance costs,” and another time he said they provided people the ability to share their “insurance costs.” He also told committee members that nothing prevented members of the cost sharing ministries from purchasing “additional insurance.”

While several Democrats on the committee pressed Altman about consumer protections and audit requirements, only Rep. Roy Hardemon D-Miami, voted against it.

“I don’t know how we dress this up to not being insurance. This is insurance. This is health insurance,” he said, explaining his opposition.

If Altman struggled to describe the differences between cost sharing ministries and insurance, Weldon did not.

“You walk through the offices you hear people praying on the phone with the people with these illnesses, so it’s not insurance. It’s a Christian ministry. It’s different. It’s really, really different.” said Weldon, whose association also represents Christian Healthcare Ministries and Samaritan Ministries. Combined, the three ministries account for 50 percent of the market.

“Show me an insurance company where the CEO is being paid $200,000 a year. Show me an insurance company where you can call up and pray with somebody,” Weldon said. “These are Christian ministries.”