With health care costs escalating and the federal government grasping for control of everything from the purse strings to your choice of doctors, specialists and treatments, many Oklahomans are searching for innovative, individualized ways to achieve wellness. Among those options are faith-based health-care “sharing ministries.”

Often invoking Scripture such as Galations 6:2 – “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the laws of Christ” – these organizations in effect are nonprofit cooperatives. An estimated 1.5 million people nationwide have joined such bill-sharing groups, which act as an organizational clearinghouse for information between participants who have financial, physical or medical needs and participants who presently have the ability to pay for the benefits of those who have needs. Typically, members deposit monthly fees into an account and managers of the organization distribute the funds to pay bills incurred by individual members.

Many members of these organizations say they also receive spiritual support from their health-care sharing ministry, beyond the financial impact of the group.

An added benefit for those who join these health-care sharing ministries is that their participation makes them no longer subject to Washington’s individual mandate to purchase insurance. Section 1501(b) of the PPACA adds Section 5000A to the Internal Revenue Code, exempting members of a health-care sharing ministry from being required to purchase private insurance.

As a man of great faith and an advocate of free-market solutions to insurance issues, I support health-care sharing ministries as an additional option for Oklahoma consumers.

But I must also make it clear that the Oklahoma Insurance Department by law cannot provide consumer protections to those who choose to participate in health-care sharing ministries.

Some history on the subject might illustrate that point.

Under the previous administration, the Oklahoma Insurance Department found that a health-care sharing ministry known as Medi-Share was actually operating in this state as an insurance company without license to do so.

In 2008, Medi-Share was enjoined by OID from acting as an insurer in the state of Oklahoma. That same year, the Oklahoma Legislature amended the requirements of the state Insurance Code 36 O.S. § 110(11) to provide that the Insurance Department did not have regulatory powers over health-care sharing ministries. Meanwhile, Medi-Share modified its operations so that it facilitated direct member-to-member sharing of health care expenses, making its operating model compliant with the revised Oklahoma law. In 2009, Medi-Share resumed operations in Oklahoma as a health-care sharing ministry.

What this means in layman’s terms is that while faith-based sharing organizations might be an option to make health care more affordable and to keep the federal government out of your family’s health care choices, you cannot bring consumer complaints to me as your Insurance Commissioner or to the Oklahoma Insurance Department for resolution. You will have to settle any potential dispute with your health-care sharing ministry on your own.

Consider this as you weigh the decision to join a health-care sharing ministry.

For more information on this topic or about any form of insurance in Oklahoma, don’t hesitate to contact the Oklahoma Insurance Department’s Consumer Assistance Hotline at 1-800-522-0071. You can also visit us online at www.ok.gov/oid/.