TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

State News

February 13, 2013

First hurdle for Medi-Share cleared

CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis

CNHI News Service

A bill to exempt a Christian medical needs sharing program from some Department of Insurance regulations cleared the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee on Tuesday.

The bill, sponsored by Committee Chair Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, would pave the way for Medi-Share, an insurance-like shared risk program for Christians, to return to Kentucky.

Medi-Share, a cost-sharing program of Christian Care Ministries based in Melbourne, Fla., left Kentucky in January after the Department of Insurance determined the service is not a direct sharing of risk between members.

But that left some members high and dry, according to those who testified before Buford’s committee Tuesday.

David Schwartz, a Trigg County minister whose wife has suffered two bouts of melanoma, said when Medi-Share left he had a difficult time securing insurance despite a letter from DOI saying his wife’s pre-existing condition should not bar her from buying insurance.

Schwartz said just one bill of the nature his wife incurred during previous treatments of her cancer could wipe out his entire annual salary as a minister.

Robert Baldwin, National Policy Director for Christian Care Ministries, said 21 other states have such exemptions in state insurance regulations and the national Affordable Care Act specifically exempts members of such sharing cooperatives from the tax levied on those without insurance.

But the program isn’t technically insurance. Members are assigned a monthly “share” based on their income levels and those amounts are placed into personal accounts, which they control. If another member’s health care costs exceed his ability of pay, then other members share those expenses.

Duane Walker, a Lexington minister, told the committee his wife incurred more than $250,000 of medical bills for treatment of breast cancer.

Walker said he was completely pleased with the way the system worked and had never had a complaint. But now, he said, his monthly cost for a premium with a private insurer will double.

Buford pointed out DOI had only interpreted existing Kentucky law and that was why his bill is necessary.

He told the story of constituents who had depended on Medi-Share but now faced pregnancies without coverage because the organization was no longer operating in Kentucky.

Buford said he hopes to place an emergency clause on the bill, which would make it effective as soon as the governor signs the bill. It would first have to pass the full Senate, which seems likely given the number of Republican co-sponsors and then the Democratic-controlled House.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, was the only member of the committee to question those testifying in support of the bill — and he ultimately voted to pass the bill out committee.

In response to McGarvey’s questions, Baldwin said the organization had never been unable to pay for a member’s medical needs in its 19 years of operation. Over that period of time, he said, Medi-Share has paid out more than $500 million in “shared needs.”

He said the monthly fee averages about $400 per member and members are explicitly told when they sign up that Medi-Share is not insurance and payments are not guaranteed.

Buford said no member of Medi-Share had ever lodged a complaint with DOI during the time it operated in Kentucky.

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.

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