The state House on Thursday gave an initial OK to a bill that would allow health-sharing ministries in state law.
Under health care sharing ministries, members of a common religious faith pool their money to cover health care costs for their group. Lawmakers have tried since at least 2011 to make clear they're legal.
In 2017, then-Commissioner of Securities and Insurance Matt Rosendale, a Republican, issued a letter allowing a major health sharing ministry, Medi-Share, to operate in Montana.
Christian Care Ministry Inc., which operates the program, had been banned from operating in the state after a 2007 district court opinion found the company was selling insurance without registering in the state.
After a 2007 civil lawsuit filed by a pastor who said the program would not pay for expenses related to a heart condition, a Helena jury ordered Medi-Share to pay $850,000. The organization paid the medical bills after the pastor filed a civil lawsuit, according to then-insurance commissioner John Morrison.
Senate Bill 149, from Republican Sen. Tim McGilvray, allows for the ministries to operate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and clarifies that they are not insurance products regulated by the commissioner's office. Passing the bill means that allowing health sharing ministries would not be up to the state insurance commissioner's decisions in the future.
"They're a vital alternative to health insurance for some individuals, however they are not insurance," said Rep. Amy Regier, a Kalispell Republican who carried the bill on the House floor. " ... The goal of Senate Bill 149 is to have health sharing ministries defined and codified in law so thousands of Montanans are free to exercise their faith ... and have an affordable health care sharing alternative to insurance."
Rep. Ed Stafman, a Democrat from Bozeman and a rabbi, said he supported the ministries when they first started, but that commercial interests have entered the market and exploited it.
"They expanded so that they're no longer just these religious ministries, but companies often with no religious or ministerial connection who sell these unregulated insurance-like products to consumers for a profit," Stafman said. "Many consumers are attracted by the cost, which can be less than insurance, but that's because these plans often don't cover pre-existing conditions. They contain numerous exclusions. And most important, the company has no legal obligation to pay any claim they don't wish to pay."