Obamacare religious exemption hard to get

Nestled in the fine print of the Affordable Care Act is a clause that allows people of certain religions to seek an exemption from the requirement to carry health insurance or pay a fine.

The clause applies only to denominations that run their own "mutual aid" system of spreading the cost of health care across the community.

That's how the Amish -- and to a lesser extent, Mennonites -- traditionally handled health expenses.

Mennonites are not opposed to the concept of either health care or health insurance. In fact, the central governing body, the Mennonite Church USA, has been operating its Corinthian Plan since 2010.

It's a conventional health insurance plan, operated under contract by Blue Cross Blue Shield, that allows employees of the denomination's churches to get health insurance.

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In one way, it was a precursor of Obamacare in that it did not exclude people with pre-existing conditions.

Instead, it flows from the spiritual desire to avoid becoming too "worldly" or "becoming too much of your culture," said Duncan Smith, interim director for the Corinthian Plan.

"It isn't so much about being anti-government, as it is a sense of 'We should take care of ourselves,' '' he said. By relying on government programs, congregants lose the sense that they can -- and should -- rely on what God has given them, he said.

And Christian Scientists? It turns out they are not among those religions that object to the notion of health insurance, so are not exempted from the individual mandate, according to Valerie Minard, of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for New Jersey, in Collingswood.

Christian Scientists, who refrain from some forms of medical care, are covered by the ACA and must buy insurance or pay the fine.

Thinking of forming your own instant religion? It's not enough to disapprove of the law, or to object to certain clauses in it based on one's religion.

It won't fly with the IRS, the agency that will collect fines from those who were supposed to buy health insurance and didn't. Why? Because the exempted religions must have been established prior to 1950.

That mirrors the exemption clause from a big government program: The Amish in particular neither pay into nor collect from Social Security. To limit newcomers from getting out from under that payroll tax, the government stated it applied only to sects in existence before 1950.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives managed to attract bipartisan support to pass a bill that would expand the religious exemption for the ACA. Under the Equitable Access to Care and Health (EACH) Act, anyone who claimed to hold a "sincerely held religious belief" against the concept of health insurance wouldn't be subject to the requirement to get coverage.

The bill is given little chance to pass the U.S. Senate, however, where Democrats have questioned why anyone would want to give the IRS more power to inquire into taxpayers' religious beliefs.

Under the bill, anyone claiming an exemption on the grounds of religious beliefs would have to include a sworn affidavit on their annual tax return. In addition, they would lose the exemption if they sought and received medical care during that tax year.

[Kathleen O'Brien writes for The Star-Ledger.]


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March 24-April 6, 2017