FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- A Christians-only health care ministry would be allowed to resume operating in Kentucky under a measure that had been languishing in the Legislature only to be revived by a House committee on Thursday.
The House Banking and Insurance Committee voted 28-0 to pass the measure on behalf of Florida-based Medi-Share just minutes before the Senate Banking and Insurance committee voted 8-0 to confirm the appointment of Insurance Commissioner Sharon Clark.
Both the Medi-Share bill and Clark's confirmation had been in question before Thursday's votes.
Richard Beliles, chairman of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky, said the action smacks of a political deal.
"Horse-swapping is not in the public interest," Beliles said. "We need our legislators to use their best judgment on the merits of situations like this."
Senate Banking and Insurance Committee Chairman Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said the back-to-back votes were coincidence.
"There was never any 'do this, do that' put upon her," Buford said. "It was nice that she came forward and supported this legislation."
House Banking and Insurance Committee Chairman Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, declined to comment on whether Clark's confirmation was tied to the Medi-Share vote. Clark also dodged that question.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo grinned when asked if the two committee votes were connected. "Not that I know of, but I wouldn't be surprised," he said.
Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ordered Medi-Share to stop operating in Kentucky last year at the request of the Kentucky Department of Insurance, which was already being led by Clark.
If the Medi-Share legislation wins final passage, Clark said the Department of Insurance would be willing to go back to court to get Wingate's ban lifted.
"With these changes, it allows them to operate," she said. "That is the bottom line."
Buford said the legislation, which he sponsored, 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.
For the past decade, the Department of Insurance has been in the unenviable position of having to fight against the 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.
The Rev. David Atkisson, pastor of Grace Church in Elizabethtown, said he and his wife are hopeful that Medi-Share bill wins final passage.
"Without it, we wouldn't have medical coverage," Atkisson said.
Stumbo said he believes the measure could pass the full House before the Legislature adjourns. Several lawmakers publicly touted Medi-Share on Thursday as a less expensive alternative to traditional insurance plans.
"This is a very important social program," said state Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville. "They're thinking outside the box."
The legislation is Senate Bill 3.