In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services issued an interim final rule that would require most health insurance plans to cover preventive services for women including recommended contraceptive services without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. The rule allows certain non-profit religious employers that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraceptive services.
In a statement released Friday, January 20, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services said, “After evaluating comments, we have decided to add an additional element to the final rule. Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not
currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year, until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new law. Employers wishing to take advantage of the additional year must certify that they qualify for the delayed implementation. This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule. We intend to require employers that do not offer coverage of contraceptive services to provide notice to employees, which will also state that
contraceptive services are available at sites such as community health centers, public clinics, and hospitals with income-based support. We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.”
The announcement stirred up some religious groups, most notably the Catholic bishops of the United States. They called the decision by the Obama Administration “literally unconscionable”. They said that this announcement means that the mandate and its very
narrow exemption will not change at all; instead there will only be a delay in enforcement against some employers.
“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable,” the cardinal-designate said. “It is as much an
attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically, this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty.”
Sebelius said that the final rule on preventive health services will ensure that women with health insurance coverage will have access to the full range of the Institute of Medicine’s recommended preventive services, including all FDA-approved forms of contraception. “Women will not have to forego these services because of expensive co-pays or deductibles, or because an insurance plan doesn’t include contraceptive services,” she said. “This
rule is consistent with the laws in a majority of states which already require contraception coverage in health plans, and includes the exemption in the interim final rule allowing certain religious organizations not to provide contraception coverage. Beginning August
1, 2012, most new and renewed health plans will be required to cover these services without cost sharing for women across the country.”
“The government should not force Americans to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs,” said Cardinal-designate Dolan.
At issue, the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders insist, is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for the conscience of Catholics and all other Americans.
In her released statement, Sebelius said, “Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, it is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America
by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing.”
“This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights,” said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairperson of the board at Franciscan Alliance, Inc., a
system of 13 Catholic hospitals. “I have hundreds of employees who will be upset and confused by this edict. I cannot understand it at all.”
Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, voiced disappointment with the decision. Catholic hospitals serve one out of six people who seek hospital care annually.
“This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection,” Sister Keehan said.
Cardinal-designate Dolan urged that the HHS mandate be overturned. “The Obama administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand,” he said. “The Catholic bishops are committed to working with our fellow Americans to reform the law and change
this unjust regulation. We will continue to study all the implications of this troubling decision.”
Sebelius said, “This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty. I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services. The administration remains fully committed to its partnerships with faith-based organizations, which promote healthy communities and
serve the common good. And this final rule will have no impact on the protections that existing conscience laws and regulations give to health care providers.”
Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said, “During the same week we commemorated
the life, ministry, and message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his advancement of civil rights in this country, the Federal Government took the unprecedented step to affirm its discrimination against Americans exercising their right of conscience. With its edict on
contraception and sterilization coverage in all health insurance plans, the Department of Health and Human Services is forcing insurers and purchasers to choose whether or not to violate their moral and religious beliefs. The inalienable rights guaranteed in our country’s founding documents are being trampled. Where is the ‘liberty’ in a decision to intrude on freedom of conscience? The Constitution speaks of ‘freedom of religion,’ not ‘freedom from
Archbishop Vigneron added, “Lawmakers in Washington need to step up, step in, and protect the rights of their fellow citizens from a government mandate that is truly unconscionable. This fight against the Federal Government’s over-reaching exercise of its power is everybody’s fight. As Pope Benedict reminded us just days ago, as citizens of the United States, we Catholics serve the whole nation by our witness to our moral convictions and our defense of the liberties that will always be ours by right, not by the permission of the government.”