Christian Science provision sought in healthcare law

Boston, USA - Officials of the Christian Science Church are worried that the state's healthcare law will exclude faith healing as a recognized health benefit for its employees who do not receive traditional medical care because of their religious beliefs.

The church, based in Boston, holds that illnesses should be treated with prayer, but a draft version of the healthcare reform regulations specifies that employers must contribute to workers' medical insurance coverage to comply with the landmark law that takes effect next year. Those that do not will be assessed $295 per employee annually.

The law also requires Massachusetts residents to enroll in a health insurance plan or face penalties such as the loss of personal tax deductions. It exempts those who do not because of ``sincerely held religious beliefs," but there is no such provision for employers.

Church officials this month told the Division of Health Care Financing and Policy that the non medical insurance coverage it offers employees should qualify as healthcare. It wants the rules to require ``health care " without referring to ``medical services."

``The Church does not think it is the Commonwealth's intention to dictate the `methods' under which health and well-being are achieved" under healthcare reform, wrote Claire Waterson , a spokeswoman and registered lobbyist for the church, in formal comments submitted to the state. ``The Church provides its employees with a wide range of health care benefit options, and one of these options is a health plan for spiritual healing."

Along with written comments, the church provided fact sheets describing the two health plans it offers employees.

For those who are not Christian Scientists, it pays about 70 percent of the premium for a standard managed-care medical plan provided by Tufts Health Plan.

The second plan -- for employees who are church members -- is offered directly through the church and covers faith healing. It pays 90 percent of the cost of treatment by faith healers, who pray for patients in an effort to heal them of physical and spiritual ailments. The plan also features 90 percent coverage for home care by Christian Science nurses, who provide practical help such as changing bandages, but do not administer medication or any other type of medical care. Annual out-of-pocket expenses for participants in the Christian Science plan are capped at $1,000 for individuals and $3,000 for families.

The church, whose headquarters at the intersection of Huntington and Massachusetts avenues is called The Mother Church, has about 550 employees in Massachusetts. About half of them choose the traditional health plan, and one quarter are enrolled in the faith-healing plan.

Mark Unger, who describes himself as a metaphysician, qualifies under the church's faith-healing insurance plan to treat patients through prayer. He said his job is ``to lift up the patient above the physical level to the spiritual, to get them to look beyond the symptoms to the spiritual truth about what's going on."

Unger charges $32 for a treatment, during which he prays for a patient to promote healing. The Ashland resident said he can pray anywhere, but prefers a quiet place, usually not with the patient. ``My style of prayer is just an absolute, quiet listening to God," he said.

While he doesn't make medical diagnoses, Unger says he has cured a patient's skin cancer with prayer. ``It dried up and dropped off," he said.

John Q. Adams of Boston, who said he has worked as a Christian Science faith healer full-time since 1985, described his treatments as prayers that focus on the specific needs of a patient. He said he charges $25 per treatment.

By rewriting the Massachusetts healthcare law to define insurance coverage only as ``health care," the church said, the state would be consistent with Internal Revenue Service regulations, which describe health plans without making reference to conventional medical treatment.

The final regulations from the healthcare division are due tomorrow. A spokesman for the division said all public comments are being considered as part of the decision process.

Senator Richard T. Moore, Democrat of Uxbridge and a member of the committee that crafted the final healthcare law, said one provision was supposed to allow Christian Scientists to practice faith healing without being penalized.

``In the statute, we specifically provided recognition of that concern and we expect the regulations to support that," he said. ``If they don't, I suspect [the administration] will end up in court."

Most groups commenting on the proposal have focused on how much companies will have to contribute to healthcare to avoid the $295 per employee assessment. Under the proposed rules, a company with more than 10 employees could avoid paying the assessment if at least one-quarter of its employees sign up for a company-sponsored health plan, or the company contributes at least 33 percent of individuals' premiums. Healthcare advocates and some legislators have argued that those contributions are not adequate.

Church officials said they also want to ensure that other organizations that provide spiritual health care for employees in Massachusetts are also protected, though they could not name any other groups in the state that were concerned about the issue.

``It's about whether individuals in Massachusetts will have access to the type of care they choose," said Jane Warmack , an attorney at the church.