FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky regulators are taking a closer look at a handful of Christians-only health coverage plans that bill themselves as alternatives to traditional insurance.
Department of Insurance spokeswoman Ronda Sloan said her agency, which has had a decade-long legal battle with a ministry called Medi-Share, will be more closely examining such plans.
The legal dispute between Kentucky and Florida-based Medi-Share — which helps to pay medical bills only for Christians who don't smoke or drink — is continuing to simmer more than a year after the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that it is subject to the same regulations as secular insurance companies.
Lawyers for the Department of Insurance now are asking a judge to hold Medi-Share in contempt of court. Medi-Share, meanwhile, is seeking a hearing to explain changes that the ministry has made since the Supreme Court ruling that could resolve the contentious issue.
The legal battle involves how tightly the state can regulate Medi-Share, which serves nearly 40,000 people in 49 states, including more than 700 in Kentucky.
The latest development means that other groups, including Christian Healthcare Ministries, an Ohio-based organization that serves about 200 Kentucky families, will face additional scrutiny.
"We're in compliance with all Kentucky law, and we're in compliance with all applicable federal law," said Howard Russell, president of Christian Healthcare Ministries.
Tea party activist David Adams, a critic of the state's crackdown on such ministries, said the alternative coverage plans should be an option for Kentucky families, and he said the continuing litigation could be a deterrent to that.
"The consumer is the one left hanging in this battle with the uncertainly caused by arbitrary laws and official inaction," Adams said. "We need to have a public discussion about why we're limiting people and their abilities to freely contract for health care coverage."
Medi-Share continues to recruit new members in Kentucky by running ads on Christian radio stations, despite a permanent injunction issued by Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate in March 2011. The Department of Insurance wants the recruitment to stop.
"Since that's in violation of the permanent injunction, we filed a motion that they be held in contempt," Slone said. "That is still pending."
Tony Meggs, president of Medi-Share's parent organization, Christian Care Ministry, said he's confident that the health plan, as it operates now, is in full compliance with state regulations.
Meggs said Medi-Share "is much more simple and streamlined compared to our operations in 2002 when the case was originally filed and in 2006 when the case went to trial."
"We look forward to the judge reviewing our request and us collectively resolving this issue in a manner that both upholds state laws and best serves the families in Kentucky who are choosing to manage medical expenses through healthcare sharing," Meggs said.
Medi-Share members affirm a statement of Christian beliefs and pledge to follow a code that includes no tobacco or illegal drugs, no sex outside of marriage, and no abuse of alcohol or legal medications. Every month, members pay a fixed "share" to cover the medical expenses of members in need. The cost usually is less than private insurance.
The organization says it helps Christians pay medical bills based on a Bible verse that urges people to "carry each other's burdens."