FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A Christians-only health care ministry must cease operations in Kentucky unless it can get regulatory approval from the state Department of Insurance, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The ruling by Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate means Medi-Share, a Florida-based cost-sharing ministry, can no longer accept money or help pay medical bills for churchgoers in Kentucky.
Medi-Share closely resembles secular insurance, but only allows participation by people who pledge to live Christian lives that include no smoking, drinking, using drugs or engaging in sex outside of marriage.
The case put the Department of Insurance in the unenviable position of having to fight against a Christian cost-sharing ministry in a Bible-belt state. The agency took the case to court because of concerns that some Christians might mistakenly believe they're paying into an insurance plan that guarantees coverage if they're hospitalized. Medi-Share offers no such guarantee.
"As a state agency, we are charged with enforcing the law and protecting consumers," said Department of Insurance spokeswoman Ronda Sloan. "This case has continued for 10 years but it always has been about those basic principles."
Medi-Share had continued to operate in Kentucky a year after the state Supreme Court ruled that it is subject to the same regulations as secular health care plans. Medi-Share contends that its participants aren't buying insurance, but are involved in a charitable endeavor to help cover medical bills of fellow Christians and potentially have their own expenses covered should the need arise.
Wingate ordered Medi-Share, which is operated by Christian Care Ministry of Melbourne, Fla., "to cease all operations in Kentucky unless and until it receives a certificate of authority or other applicable license from the Department of Insurance."
"Until that time, Medi-Share's website must clearly state that it does not operate in Kentucky," Wingate said in the 14-page ruling. "If the commissioner of the Department of Insurance discovers proof that Medi-Share continues to operate, the commissioner is directed to move this court for an order requiring the secretary of state to place Christian Care Ministry in bad standing."
The legal battle between Medi-Share and Kentucky revolves around how tightly the state can regulate the Christian health care ministry that serves nearly 40,000 people in 49 states, including 800 in Kentucky. Medi-Share President Tony Meggs testified in August that the group has helped arrange for Christians across the country to pay some $25 million in medical bills for Kentucky participants over the past 10 years.
Meggs said the ministry has revamped its plan in an effort to alleviate Kentucky's regulatory concerns by no longer collecting contributions from participants into a central account. Instead, Meggs said, participants make contributions into their own accounts at American Christian Credit Union. When Christians need money to pay medical bills, he said, money is transferred directly between member accounts, bypassing a central fund pool that was in existence at the time of the Supreme Court ruling.
Wingate refused to hold Medi-Share in contempt of court for continuing to operate, saying he found no proof that the organization acted in willful disobedience by continuing to operate after the Supreme Court ruling.
Meggs said Tuesday no decision has been made on Medi-Share will do in response to Wingate's ruling.
"We are currently reviewing whether we will ask for a rehearing before the court or whether we will appeal the denial of our request to have the actions of the Kentucky Department of Insurance reviewed by a neutral administrative hearing officer," he said in a statement.
Tea party activist David Adams, who has filed complaints with the Department of Insurance about Medi-Share and similar ministries, lamented the judge's ruling but said he understands it.
"This is exactly the wrong time to be limiting health coverage choices for Kentuckians, but the way the law is written Judge Wingate had no choice," he said.
Adams is calling on lawmakers to pass legislation exempting organizations such as Medi-Share from state regulations governing secular insurance companies so that they can continue operating in Kentucky.