(AP) — A Christians-only health care ministry that was forced out of Kentucky last year could be invited back under legislation that cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.
The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee voted 11-0 to pass a bill that would exempt Medi-Share, a Florida-based cost-sharing ministry, from state insurance regulations.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ordered Medi-Share to stop operating in Kentucky last year at the request of the Department of Insurance because it didn't comply with insurance regulations.
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said the legislation that now goes to the full Senate for consideration would allow about 800 Kentuckians to rejoin Medi-Share. The plan resembles secular insurance in some ways but only allows participation by people who pledge to live Christian lives with no smoking, drinking, using drugs or engaging in sex outside of marriage.
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.
Some of the former participants — including the Rev. Dewayne Walker, pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Lexington — told lawmakers they want to be a part of Medi-Share. Walker said Medi-Share paid about $250,000 in medical bills for his wife, who had cancer.
"We are more than pleased with the coverage we've gotten so far," Walker said.
Buford, chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and sponsor of the bill, said he proposed an easy fix that takes Medi-Share and two other such ministries operating in Kentucky out from under the oversight of the Department of Insurance.
Buford said his rationale was simple: "The Department of Insurance regulates insurance companies. This is not an insurance company."
For the past decade, the Department of Insurance has been 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.
The legal battle between Medi-Share and Kentucky revolved around how tightly the state can regulate the Christian health care ministry that serves nearly 40,000 people in 48 states.
Medi-Share President Tony Meggs testified in court last year that the group has helped arrange to pay for some $25 million in medical bills for Kentuckians over the past 10 years.