Tough health care choices loom for Catholic employers
(CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
By Father Bill Pomerleau
SPRINGFIELD – Unless Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court acts soon, Catholic institutions across western Massachusetts will face incredibly difficult decisions on how to provide health care to their employees, the spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield warned Oct. 4.
“Our insurance policies run until next June. If nothing changes by then, we will have to pay enormous fines that would bankrupt the diocese, or stop providing coverage to our employees,” Mark Dupont told several dozen attendees at the monthly First Friday Prayer Breakfast at the Marshall Center.
In what many political observers consider a desperate effort, the chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty wrote members of Congress Sept. 26 urging passage of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.
If enacted into law, the act would reverse provisions of the Affordable Care Act which require all employers to fund all drugs and devices approved by the Federal Drug Administration as contraceptives in their employee health care plans.
Certain abortifacient drugs are considered contraceptives under FDA regulations. In their letter, Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley and Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said that “a particular threat is the (Obama) Administration’s mandate for covering contraception, sterilization and related education and counseling as ‘preventive services’ for enrollees and their minor daughters.”
Several religious groups who object to the mandate as a violation of their religious freedom have waged a four-year battle to alter the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by regulations issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
“The first set of rules in 2011 even upset E.J. Dionne, a well-known liberal columnist in The New York Times. Chris Matthews from MSNBC called it a violation of our freedom,” Dupont said.
HHS regulations now permit “houses of worship” which buy commercial insurance to exempt themselves from the “contraceptive mandate.” But most faith-based organizations, such as Catholic Charities agencies and Catholic colleges, are not included in the exemptions.
Nor are groups which are self-insured, like the Diocese of Springfield. Clergy and lay employees are not covered for procedures the church considers immoral under its self-insurance plans, which are administered, but not funded, by Health New England.
The diocese, Our Lady of the Elms College and other Catholic entities in the region are self-insured in part to avoid the mandates written into Massachusetts’ own health care system, which was implemented in 2006. Unlike under “Obamacare,” the Bay State’s “Romneycare” law allowed employers to set up their own insurance plans without contraception and other coverage.
“We now are faced with the possibility of paying high penalties if we don’t change our plans, or sending everyone to the exchanges,” Dupont explained.
If the law isn’t changed, religious groups could stop offering health insurance to their employees, and give them cash to buy their own insurance. But that option merely shifts the moral dilemma to individuals who object to their premium dollars being spent to fund immoral procedures, those lobbying to repeal the mandate say.
Dupont noted that the battle to change the Affordable Care Act is being fought on two fronts. The U.S. bishops are promoting legislative action which could be folded into a continuing resolution to fund the federal budget or raise the debt ceiling in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, several dioceses and other religious groups are challenging the constitutionality of the mandate in the federal courts.
“I doubt that the legislative route will work. I personally believe that it’s better for the Supreme Court to hear this sooner rather than later,” Dupont said.