Health Care Sharing Ministry Seeks Relief Regarding Cease-and-Desist Order by Washington Office of Insurance Commissioner

In the Western District of Washington on Tuesday, OneShare International, OneShare Health LLC, and the Rev. Pamela Woodson filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief against agents of the Washington Office of Insurance Commissioner (OIC) Myron “Mike” Kreidler, Steve Valandra, Toni Hood, and Todd Dixon, who filed a cease-desist-order to bar the plaintiffs from operating their health care sharing ministry (HCSM) in Washington state.

The OIC ordered OneShare Health, an HCSM with origins in Anabaptism, to cease and desist on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ HCSM did not qualify for an exemption from insurance regulation under the state’s “HSCM safe harbor,” which was enacted by Congress concurrently with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to make HCSMs exempt from the same federal regulations as traditional health care providers; however, the plaintiffs argued that the state’s legislature expressly gave the safe harbor the same meaning as the federal safe harbor (26 U.S.C. § 5000A) and that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found that OneShare was exempt, the complaint said.

In an OIC news release on April 1 announcing the March 31 cease-and-desist order, Kreidler, the state’s insurance commissioner, is quoted as saying, “This is another sham health care sharing ministry that is preying on people who think they are buying health insurance. The reality is that they are collecting hundreds of dollars a month from people, and in some cases, saddling them with 100% of their medical bills.”

The plaintiffs claimed that “OIC’s action denounced and defamed the entire Ministry, including individual Plaintiff Reverend Woodson,” who participates in the health care sharing program and a member of OneShare’s Board of Directors. They also claimed that the action has caused the loss of 31% of OneShare’s membership in Washington state, leading to a loss of more than $1.4 million “and counting.”

The “harsh scrutiny of OneShare, its general suspicion of HCSMs, and its denial of HCSM safe harbor status” equate to “especially harsh” and “non-neutral” discriminatory treatment, the plaintiffs alleged, that is in violation of the plaintiffs’ First and 14th Amendment rights.

Nonetheless, the defendants argued in the cease-and-desist order that OneShare does not qualify as an HCSM because it allegedly does not meet the condition that the organization, or its predecessor, must have been operating and sharing member health care costs since at least Dec. 31, 1999 — “OneShare relies entirely on a letter, dated July 14, 2015, from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) approving the Organization as a HCSM,” the according to the cease-and-desist order. The defendants also argued that OneShare is disqualified from consideration as an HCSM because not all of the members share the same set of beliefs.

The roots of the HCSM are important here, the plaintiffs noted: This particular ministry’s predecessor is the Gospel Light Mennonite Church, established in 1995, of which “mutual support for each other’s health care” is a tenet. The church leaders began expanding this HCSM in 2014, the plaintiffs said, which included the creation of OneShare International and OneShare Health in 2015 and 2016, respectively, which have a parent-subsidiary HCSM relationship. Thus, the plaintiffs purported that despite the creation of the HCSM as it stands today occurring after Dec. 31, 1999, the church was its predecessor, so it has been continuously operating since 1995. Further, the expansion included evangelistic outreach to non-Anabaptists, another core tenet of the church, the plaintiffs explained.

The plaintiffs requested that the court make a declaration that OneShare does qualify as an HCSM; that the court enter judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs against the defendants for the alleged violations of the First and 14th Amendments; declaratory and injunctive relief that includes an order for the defendants to withdraw their cease-and-desist order and their press release announcing the cease-and-desist order; and other relief the court deems just and proper.

The plaintiffs are represented by Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC.