CPG advocates for Church Health Plan bill

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The Episcopal Church’s Church Pension Group is urging Episcopalians to support the proposed Church Health Plan Act of 2013. According to CPG’s statement,

[I]n the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Congress overlooked clergy and lay employees of churches. As a result, the ACA does not extend the same premium tax credits available to the general public to the clergy and lay employees covered in church health plans. [Emphasis in the original.]

Beginning in 2014, the ACA will offer premium tax credits to certain low- and modest-income families to reduce the cost of commercial health insurance plans offered through a health exchange (health insurance marketplace). Unfortunately, federal law does not extend the same premium tax credits to low- and modest-income clergy or lay employees of churches receiving coverage through a church health plan.

On June 13th, Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas, and Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, introduced legislation called the Church Health Plan Act of 2013 (S. 1164) that would correct this shortcoming by allowing eligible clergy and lay employees enrolled in church health plans to receive the same premium tax credits as other individuals.

The United Methodist Church General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits also issued a press release supporting the bill.

An RNS article adds clarity to what is at issue:

Under Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act, more than 50 percent of UMC clergy would qualify for tax credits available to lower- and middle-class families to purchase insurance. But because of the way the law was written, those tax credits cannot be used toward insurance plans churches can offer through government-run exchanges.

Thus, it appears the ACA allows church employers to create church plans through government-run exchanges but does not allow other employers to do so. The ACA envisioned that if you were already covered under your employer’s plan you would continue to do so. But the ACA is a complex piece of legislation and the website of the other sponsor of the bill, Senator Pryor, suggests church health plans that are closed to the public (just as any employer-based plan is) never were “qualified health plans”:

Under the Affordable Care Act, many benefits are applicable only to “qualified health plans.” Unlike other health insurance plans, church plans are only available to church clergy employees. Because they are closed to the general public, church health plans are unable to participate in the new health care exchanges or receive tax credits and reduced cost-sharing that make coverage more affordable.

Without the fix denomination-wide plans like TEC’s could unravel,

Under Obama’s 2010 Affordable Care Act, more than 50 percent of UMC clergy would qualify for tax credits available to lower- and middle-class families to purchase insurance. But because of the way the law was written, those tax credits cannot be used toward insurance plans churches can offer through government-run exchanges.

“The concern is that the church plans won’t be viable if everyone who can get a tax credit leaves and goes to the state exchange,” said Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee School of Law, who studies health care.

According a press release Senator Coons’ website,

This bill is supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Church Alliance — a coalition of 37 church-benefit boards covering mainline Protestant denominations, two branches of Judaism, and Catholic schools and institutions. The members of the Alliance provide health care benefits for more than one million clergy and lay workers.

The RNS reports the bill’s passage is in doubt given that opponents of the ACA are happy for it to be unpalatable in order to strengthen support for its repeal.

If you can set aside the Washington politics surrounding the bill, what are your views of its merits? For instance, should the church advocate for tax credits for its clergy and lay employees but not advocate that the tax credits also be extended to workers employed by businesses? Is their work any less sacred?

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Rev. Thomas Ferguson
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Rev. Thomas Ferguson

I presume anything that can get the Southern Baptist Convention and the Episcopal Church lobbying together must have some pretty wide consensus.

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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

Marshall, thank you for was is a correction of my statement that TEC's plan could unravel. It can't if opting out isn't possible.

That an individual can opt out of the denomination plan, and this could be a source unraveling seems unlikely, however novel.

Perhaps the concern CPG has is that there will be enormous pressure to undo the denomination's mandate because so many more parishes/dioceses will see it in their interest to free of the mandate. That it could unravel in that sense. So they want to somehow design their plan so by appearances the beneficiary is buying the plan and can claim these (generous) credits. Yet keep the plan closed to the public.

My question remains -- what's the moral justification for advocating this for our people, and not for non-church workers obtaining insurance through their employer?

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mscottsail
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And so I am confused. I can imagine clergy for whom a denominational plan is not available going to the exchanges; but I can't imagine clergy for whom it is available doing so.

Or, actually, I can. Remember that under the Denominational Health Plan no institution can opt out (diocese, parish, etc); but an individual can. So, could a Vestry or Bishop's Council persuade (coerce) a cleric to opt out of the DHP in favor of a plan through the state Exchange? It's conceivable. Perhaps that's what CPG is concerned about. We would need to hear more specifically from CPG to understand the interest for the Episcopal Church in this legislation.

Conversely, is there an opportunity for ministry here? Could the Church Pension Group through Church Insurance offer plans on the exchanges open to the public? Would we be able to offer something at a price competitive to commercial organizations? That might broaden the base for the Church Pension Group, offer service to poor and working-class folks, and raise the stature of the Episcopal Church. It might well broaden the risk pools in our plans, and/or better localize cost comparisons for our dioceses.

Marshall Scott

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