WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Catholic group is launching an alternative to health insurance that enables people to pay their medical expenses without being part of a health insurance plan they feel compromises their religious beliefs.

“We have to find new ways to protect conscience rights in health care,” said Mike O’Dea, one of the co-founders of the new program, Christ Medicus Foundation CURO. “Curo” is Latin for care for, cure and heal.

The health sharing program, announced at the National Press Club Oct. 2 as the first one in the United States that is Catholic, is partnering with Samaritan Ministries International, an evangelical health sharing program that has been operating since 1994 and serves 120,000 members.

Under the Affordable Care Act, health sharing ministries in existence before 1999 are exempt from the federal health care law’s individual mandate requiring everyone to have insurance.

These types of groups, currently serving more than 300,000 in the U.S., are founded on the biblical mandate of believers sharing each other’s needs. They receive no government funding or grants and are not insurance companies. Members contribute monthly fees and submit their medical expenses to the group.

David Wilson, the other co-founder of Christ Medicus Foundation CURO, based in Troy, Michigan, said the likely candidates for this program are “people who view their faith and religious liberty as very important.”

He described it as a good fit for the uninsured, self-employed and small-business owners. Members pay a monthly fee, which varies for individuals, couples and families and is spelled out on the group’s website, http://cmfcuro.com. Medical needs that cost less than $300 are not “shared among members” but amounts from $300 to $250,000 per need are. In circumstances with medical bills exceeding the top amount, special arrangements can be made.

Applicants can pre-register for the program on the website, but enrollment does not begin until Dec. 15 and the program will be operational Jan. 1, 2015.

To qualify, potential members must be professed Christians who attend church services at least three times a month, abstain from smoking, drug use and sexual immorality, and limit alcohol consumption. To enroll, candidates must submit a signed letter from their pastor attesting that they meet the group’s criteria.

Wilson, the first to register for the program, said its costs are significantly less than health insurance premiums and O’Dea concurred, noting recent skyrocketing deductible payments.

When asked whether the program would continue if the Affordable Care Act were overturned, the resounding answer was yes.

“With or without the Affordable Care Act, we’re building on community,” said Louis Brown, the program’s director.

He said the program reflected the new evangelization going on in the Catholic Church today, emphasizing preaching the Gospel with words and actions and being in solidarity with one another.

Wilson similarly indicated that this new way of paying for health care was opened up by disputes that Catholics, in particular, had with the Affordable Care Act, which he said “created an opportunity for us to practice our faith.”

A key aspect in the structure of this program is its ecumenical base, Brown added, stressing the importance of joining with Samaritan Ministries.

He also noted that members will not only get financial support in their time of need, but spiritual support as well, through the organization’s call center where volunteers will pray for specific needs.

“This is a ministry to help physical and spiritual needs,” Brown said.