Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 4, 2012

It's not insurance

Medi-Share's consumers don't want state's protection

The Independent

ASHLAND — As far the Kentucky Department of Insurance is concerned, its 10-year battle against a Christians-only health ministry has always been about protecting consumers and not about the ministry’s religious beliefs.

However, one suspects that most if not all of those Kentuckians who are enrolled in Medi-Share, a Florida-based cost-sharing ministry, know exactly what the ministry does and does not do and neither seek nor want the protection of the Department of Insurance. They see Medi-Share as an option to traditional health insurance they should have the freedom to choose.

We side with those who choose to subscribe to Medi-Share. While most Kentuckians — including many committed Christians  — would not qualify to enroll in Media-Share, it should be an option for those few who do. As long as Medi-Share clearly informs participants it is not a traditional health insurance plan, then we say caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

The Department of Insurance won a  round in the long battle with Medi-Share Tuesday, when Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled Medi-Share must cease operations in Kentucky unless it can get regulatory approval from the state Department of Insurance. Medi-Share continues to insist it does not need the department’s approval because it is not an insurance company and has never claimed to be one.

While Medi-Share closely resembles secular insurance, it 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. Those with chronic illnesses like diabetes or who are obese also do not qualify for Medi-Share regardless of how strong their faith may be.

The case puts 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.”

During all that time, the Department of Insurance has provided little or no evidence that Medi-Share is misrepresenting itself to its participants. We know of no complaints against Medi-Share by consumers enrolled in it.

Wingate’s ruling comes a year after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Medi-Share is subject to the same regulations as secular health care plans. Medi-Share contends its participants 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. It sees itself as being closer to a co-op than an insurance company.

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.”

Medi-Share does not operate just in Kentucky. The Christian health care ministry claims it serves nearly 40,000 in 49 states, including 800 in Kentucky. Medi-Share President Tony Meggs testified in August the group has helped arrange for Christians across the country to pay some $25 million in medical bills for Kentucky participants during 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. Wingate refused to hold Medi-Share in contempt of court for continuing to operate, saying he found no proof the organization acted in willful disobedience by continuing to operate after the Supreme Court ruling.

The Department of Insurance may have the best of intentions in attempting to regulate Medi-Share, but to Kentuckians enrolled in Medi-Share, state regulators are meddling and offering help the consumers don’t want.