Judge shuts down Christian health ministry in Kentucky

FRANKFORT, Ky. — 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.

The health care ministry 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.

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.

The case has put the Department of Insurance in the unenviable position of having to fight against a Christian cost-sharing ministry in a Bible belt state. But the agency’s concern has been 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."

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