Stones of remembrance: How God protected our freedom to share

Michael Miller  ·  Apr 27, 2020

God’s hand has been evident in preserving freedom for members of health care sharing ministries. This excerpt from Sharing the Burden: The Samaritan Ministries Story tells how the version of the Affordable Care Act that eventually become law had an exemption for health care sharing ministries, and how God watched over Samaritan Ministries during a crisis in Washington state.

The House of Representatives outcome (approving the health care bill) of November 7, 2009, represented only half the battle. Action remained on the Senate bill, which included HCSM exemption language. SMI staff and members continued fasting and praying the language would survive. God answered those prayers. On Christmas Eve 2009, the Senate bill passed 60–39 on a straight party-line vote. Even then, the battle continued. Success would come only if the bill that emerged from a conference committee retained the exemption language—far from a sure thing. It appeared intense negotiations lay ahead; among other things, the Senate bill lacked a “public option”—in essence, a government-run health insurance agency that would compete with privately owned agencies. Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, had threatened to block a vote on any health care bill that contained a public option. The House bill included this option, a long-standing dream of liberal backers of health care reform. Reconciling the two bills lay in murky, uncertain waters.

The question became moot on January 19, 2010, when Massachusetts voters surprised the nation. Despite their liberal bent, voters chose Republican Scott Brown to fill the Senate seat left vacant the previous August by Senator Ted Kennedy’s death. While leaning left on certain social issues, Brown had vowed to oppose the health care bill, which in some ways was to serve as the crowning achievement of Kennedy’s career. The Senate bill had come out of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which Kennedy had chaired for many years. Not surprisingly, the bill contained language favored by Kennedy. But with Brown’s upset election over Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democrats lost the 60 sure votes they needed to end filibusters.

That meant Democrats who backed one of the differing bills passed by the House and Senate had to find another way to get a bill to President Obama’s desk. They managed through a parliamentary maneuver. After abandoning a “deem-and-pass” strategy, in which House majority leadership would have “deemed” the Senate bill to have passed without an actual vote, Democrats settled on a “reconciliation” approach.

On March 21, 2010, the House voted 220–211 to pass, in essence, the Senate bill. The legislation survived only after liberal Democrats gave up their insistence on a government-funded public option, and after pro-life Democrats, led by Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, gained President Obama’s assurances that the health care bill would not provide government funding of abortions. Pro-lifers called Obama’s executive order to implement that promise “useless,” because executive orders cannot override a law, and any president can change an executive order at any time.

It is amazing to us that an effort to restrict health care sharing actually resulted in greater protection for the ministry.

Ray King

So, two days later, Barack Obama signed a form of the law he had sought for a year, albeit a flawed version. The results were bittersweet for Samaritan, too. The exemption from the individual insurance mandate stayed alive thanks to much prayer, fasting, and effort. It also survived thanks to the parliamentary maneuvering that prohibited House members from offering amendments to the Senate bill. That meant the exemption—buried deep inside the 2,400-page legislation—couldn’t get stripped away. Although Christians could continue to share each other’s health care burdens, Congress had passed a law that would make obtaining quality, reasonably priced health care more difficult for most Americans.

Another memorial stone put in place

The inclusion of an exemption for HCSM members in the Affordable Care Act isn’t the only example of God reminding Samaritan Ministries of His involvement in the ministry’s efforts.

Samaritan attorney Brian Heller calls God’s intervention in these situations, each of which could have sunk or seriously harmed Samaritan, “memorial stones.” Such markers reflect God’s command to each leader of the tribes of Israel to place a stone from the Jordan at the lodging place near where God stopped the waters for Israel to cross the river (Joshua 4:1-7).

One stone, Brian believes, was the avoidance of any over-whelming needs in SMI’s early days. Another was securing for HCSM members an exemption from Massachusetts’ health care mandate, followed by the federal exemption.

A fourth stone started rolling on April Fool’s Day 2011. The state of Washington suddenly imposed a cease-and-desist order (CDO) on Samaritan Ministries, demanding a halt to any needs-sharing activities involving their residents. The state’s Insurance Commission took the action after hearing about Samaritan from a television news crew. Ironically, not one Washingtonian had ever filed a complaint about SMI.

“It so came out of the blue,” Ted Pittenger said. “When other states would ask us, ‘What are you guys doing?’ we’d send them information about the ministry and never hear from them again. Washington didn’t even call us."

Three days later, the ministry emailed all members living in Washington to inform them about the order, ask for prayer, and appeal for any information that would help SMI respond effectively.

A reaction came quickly.

The next morning’s responses from members included one from Jeff Baxter, who had been appointed as a state senator just four weeks before Washington issued its CDO. Another came from a longtime political strategist and lobbyist named Doug Simpson. “By coincidence,” Simpson would be at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia that month to lobby for an unrelated bill. Both Baxter and Simpson helped with the goal of a legislative solution to avoid expensive litigation.

As Ray King wrote in the June 2011 newsletter, “God’s timing is perfect.” Further evidence of that came in the form of a bill backed by the state’s insurance commissioner—whose office had issued the CDO—to coordinate Washington’s health care laws with new federal bills. The state’s upper chamber had already passed the bill, and the lower chamber had undertaken amendments to the proposal. That same week in April, the Washington House passed an amendment to that health care bill, to which the insurance commissioner did not object. That amendment stated that health care sharing ministries are not insurance, thereby exempting them from Insurance Commission regulations. The House returned the legislation to the Senate, which also passed it. Governor Chris Gregoire signed the bill into law on May 11, just 40 days after regulators issued the CDO. Thanks to this divine timing, Samaritan members in Washington didn’t miss a beat in sharing Needs for April or May.

“In the end it is amazing to us that an effort to restrict health care sharing actually resulted in greater protection for the ministry in a state where we were not seeking such protection,” Ray wrote.

Fascinated with the process taking exactly 40 days, Ted Pittenger couldn’t help thinking of a saying he heard several years earlier: “Forty, but 41’s coming.” Forty, of course, is a common Biblical number: The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness; Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah; Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of His ministry. Thus, the idea that 40 symbolizes a time of preparation, “but 41’s coming.” Ted even applied that to the timing of Samaritan’s blossoming as a ministry. He reached 40 years of age in 1995, when Samaritan’s future was in doubt, but after turning 41 the next year, membership rose, and the future looked bright. 

Look for more from Sharing the Burden: The Samaritan Ministries Story in coming months. Get your copy at bit.ly/sharingtheburden.