U.S. Catholic Bishops: Obamacare Rule Puts Catholic Employers in ‘Untenable Position,’ May ‘Severely Curtail’ Health Care Services

Elizabeth Harrington | December 27, 2011 | 5:22pm EST
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Cardinal Donald Wuerl, head of the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (AP Photo.)

(CNSNews.com) – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, head of the Catholic archdiocese of Washington, D.C., issued a warning last week against the implementation of an Obamacare regulation that would place many Catholic employers in an “untenable position” by requiring all health care plans to cover sterilization and abortion-inducing contraceptives, in violation of religious liberty and particularly Catholic moral teaching.

His warning coincided with a full-page ad by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which said the regulation, set to start on Aug. 1, 2012,  could “severely curtail” Catholic health care providers.

Catholic institutions account for 12.7 percent of the nation’s hospitals, according to the 2009 American Hospital Association Annual Survey, with more than 5.6 million patients admitted to Catholic hospitals in a one-year period.  An additional 1,400 long-term care and other Catholic health facilities are present in all 50 states, according to the Catholic Health Association of the United States. Also, there are about 70 million Catholics in the United States.

Wuerl, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, sent out an e-mail action alert on Dec. 22 calling the Obamacare regulation “an issue of fundamental, national importance,” pitting Catholic religious beliefs against the Obama administration’s regulation.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden react to cheers as they arrive in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 23, 2010, for the signing ceremony for the health care bill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The proposed “preventive services” mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires all health plans in the United States to cover without co-pay all FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counseling, which include abortifacients and sterilization.

Developed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the regulation would force health care providers to make available “emergency contraceptives,” such as ulipristal acetate (ella) and Plan B, which can act as abortifacients by preventing an embryo from implanting on the uterine wall.  The mandate is set to take effect on Aug. 1, 2012.

“Until now, federal law has never prevented Catholic institutions, such as the Archdiocese of Washington, from providing for the needs of their employees with a health plan that is consistent with Catholic moral teachings,” wrote Wuerl, in his Dec. 22 e-mail.

“However, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is currently considering adopting regulations that would threaten that freedom,” he said.

The same day, the USCCB placed an ad in the New York Times and Washington Post with the heading, “Support Access to Health Care? Protect Conscience Rights,” which called upon Congress and the Obama administration to change the proposed regulation. More than 400 Catholic organizations nationwide signed onto the ad.

Catholics attending Mass. (AP Photo.)

“As written, the rule will force Catholic organizations that play a vital role in providing health care and other needed services either to violate their conscience or severely curtail those services,” wrote the USCCB in the ad.  “This would harm both religious freedom and access to health care.”

“The HHS mandate puts many faith-based organizations and individuals in an untenable position,” reads the ad.  “But it also harms society as a whole, by undermining a long American tradition of respect for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In a pluralistic society, our health care system should respect the religious and ethical convictions of all.”

“We ask Congress, the Administration, and our fellow Americans to acknowledge this truth and work with us to reform the law accordingly,” the ad concluded.

Cardinal Wuerl said the regulation forces Catholic employers to “choose between violating the law and violating their conscience,” calling it an “unprecedented assault on religious liberty.”

“I encourage Catholics and others of good will to join the bishops,” he added.  “No freedom is more precious and deserving of vigilance than this.”

Pope Benedict XVI. (AP Photo.)

Although the regulation includes a “religious employer” exemption, due to its narrowness it will not apply to Catholic schools, hospitals or charitable organizations.  Only institutions with “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” or that primarily employs or serves persons who share its religious tenets, and is organized under the specific provision in the tax code that applies to churches will be exempt.

In a letter to the chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.), Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said, “a failure to respect conscience rights poses a serious threat to the goal we share of expanding access to health care.”  Pitts held a hearing on Nov. 2 entitled, "Do New Health Law Mandates Threaten Conscience of Rights and Access to Care?"

“For under the new HHS mandate,” DiNardo continued, “Catholic organizations committed to their moral and religious teaching will have no choice but to stop providing health care and other services to the needy who are not Catholic, or stop providing health coverage to their own employees.”

In his letter, DiNardo offered his support for the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R 1179 and S. 1467), which would permit a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to religious beliefs of the issuer or recipient.

In September, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to rescind the regulation, saying the mandate “poses a serious threat to our constitutionally protected religious freedoms.”

“While there is an exemption within the mandate, it doesn’t go far enough, forcing religious employers to either provide health insurance coverage that is inimical to their basic religious beliefs; to stop providing coverage to their employees; or, in some cases, to close their doors to the communities they serve. None of these outcomes is acceptable, and I will continue to fight to have this mandate rescinded,” Kelly wrote.

Without action by Congress or the administration the preventative services mandate will go into effect next year.

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