Preacher told to stop soliciting 'insurance' clients

January 21, 1993|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Staff Writer

Maryland insurance regulators yesterday issued a cease-and-desist order against an Ohio preacher who says he was told by God to start a newsletter program that oversees the transfer of $2 million a month to people without medical insurance.

Insurance Commissioner John A. Donaho concluded after an investigation that the Christian Brotherhood Newsletter of Baberton, Ohio, is soliciting the public for insurance benefits without the state's permission. Because the operation is not registered with the state, regulators do not examine its books, leaving "the public and health-care providers unprotected" in the event newsletter members don't pay the bills, the order said.

Nearly every state has questioned the newsletter, and many of them have issued orders similar to Maryland's, state regulators said.

Each of the Brotherhood's 40,000 members -- including 209 in Maryland -- pays $50 a month to members in need of help with medical bills, according to the Rev. Bruce Hawthorn, president of the Baberton Rescue Mission near Akron and publisher of the newsletter. Members are assigned bills to pay through the newsletter, where their membership number is matched to a person in need. For example, 10 members would be assigned to send their $50 payments to a family with a $500 bill, 30 members to a family with a $1,500 bill and so on.

Mr. Hawthorn said no member's bill has ever gone unpaid. But money, he added, is not the most important benefit: "Members pray for you," he said.

Members send 11 of their monthly payments directly to the families to which they have been assigned. Mr. Hawthorn operates the newsletter and rescue mission on the $2 million a year he collects from the remaining $50 payments members send to headquarters.

"Why in the world would the state of Maryland try to close up an organization that hasn't had a complaint in 11 years, when [President] Bill Clinton's biggest problem is meeting health-care bills?" he asked.

The Brotherhood newsletter's parent organization, the Baberton Rescue Mission, is a home for "winos," Mr. Hawthorn said.

Mr. Hawthorn said 25 states have tried to close him down, with all but three states rescinding orders to stop operating. He said some states have suggested he collect the money through church offerings rather than as medical payments or insurance.

"So it hasn't stopped us at all," he said, adding that his organization has already given Maryland notice that it will appeal the order. "We don't anticipate a big problem," he said.

In November the state of Washington upheld an earlier cease-and-desist order after an investigation showed the Brotherhood was operating with literature and promises similar to those used by insurance companies. The minister said he expects more people in Maryland to join as a result of press accounts.

"Every time a state tries to close us up, we get more joiners," Mr. Hawthorn said. "Look at all the Christians who are going to read this article."

The Maryland Insurance Division learned of the operation when Mr. Hawthorn wrote a letter defending his newsletter as an exercise in religious freedom. He said many of its members hear of the newsletter on Christian radio stations.

In January, newsletter members were paying bills for biopsies, pneumonia, knee surgery, stitches, kidney stones, cataract surgery and $1,734 to a Missouri man with a constant headache, according to a list Mr. Hawthorn provided yesterday.

Mr. Hawthorn said he first envisioned the newsletter program in October 1980 when members of his family incurred $14,000 worth of medical bills in a week for everything from a broken arm to an appendectomy. He had no insurance, he said. He said he checked around and found other preachers in a similar situation. More than 200 people expressed interest in joining the organization.

Two years later, he said, his wife and daughter were killed in an accident that left him with $54,000 worth of bills, again while he was without insurance. He said the bills were paid within 45 days after he wrote of the accident in another newsletter he published for 13,000 people interested in his mission for alcoholics.

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