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SSM Health church plan challenge heads toward settlement

SSM Health Care Corp., St. Louis, reached a settlement with pension plan participants legally challenging the non-profit corporation's church plan status, according to court documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.

Terms of the settlement were not released.

Participants in several SSM Health pension plans in Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Oklahoma argued in a lawsuit originally filed in 2016 and amended in 2017 that SSM Health did not meet statutory requirements to qualify as a church plan exempt from the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. The alleged violations of ERISA in the lawsuit included failing to provide summary plan descriptions, annual reports or funding notices, and underfunding the plans. Plan asset information was not available.

On July 23, 2018, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey granted SSM's motion to dismiss the complaint, noting SSM's Roman Catholic Church roots as a hospital system started by the Sisters of Saint Mary. In 1982 it become SSM Health, and then SSM Health Ministries in 2013.

Mr. Autrey also found no "imminent injury," noting in the July ruling that, according to SSM Health financial statements, it made annual pension fund contributions of more than $100 million over the past three years, and there were "sufficient assets to pay benefits for a decade even if these contributions ceased."

The participant plaintiffs in Feather vs. SSM Health Care Corp. appealed that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit on Aug. 21.

Mr. Autrey agreed to review the proposed settlement for "fairness, reasonableness and adequacy" and to conduct a hearing, according to an order filed Tuesday.

Calls to SSM Health, and attorneys for the parties were not returned.