Obama proposes change to HHS Mandate: The controversy continues

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Clare Myers
Contributing Writer

President Obama proposed a slight change to the Affordable Care Act – which requires most employers who provide health insurance to include contraceptives and abortifacients in their coverage – in response to waves of criticism from religious organizations and individuals across the country.

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services stated that all establishments that did not fall under the government’s narrow definition of a “religious institution” would not be able to opt out of the plan due to religious objections, drawing ire from religious groups and proponents of constitutional rights across the country.

According to a February 10th statement, touted as a compromise, this mandate was finalized “without change,” which among other things means that the government would be permitted to decide what defines a religious institution. This law, which University of Dallas president Thomas Keefe called a violation of the First Amendment, is under fire from religious organizations, including schools and hospitals. Very few institutions qualify under the classification. For example, many are excluded because they serve peoples of other faiths.

Although the Obama administration allows institutions that are not exempt to wait until August 2013 to conform to the rule, the promised “accommodations” are vague and have a largely nominal effect. Employers who cannot comply with the regulations on moral grounds will not have to provide the coverage. Instead, insurance companies will have to offer contraceptives to employees without co-pays or fees. In other words, the employer itself would not be forced to provide morally objectionable coverage, but the insurance it pays for would necessarily have to offer the same services directly to the employees.

According to the chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, “Rather than being forced to propose such coverage, religious organizations will simply have it imposed on them.” In light of the new responsibility placed on the shoulders of insurance companies, the issue of the rights of conscience for the insurers has become more prominent. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that “the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders – for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; and for individuals – is unacceptable and must be corrected.”

The argument for the shift in accountability from the employer to the insurance company holds that objecting institutions would not have to subsidize the coverage. This “runs up against the reality that this coverage will be integrated into [religious institutions’] overall health plan and subsidized with the premiums paid by employer and employee for that plan,” DiNardo said.

While media coverage of this controversy, which was relatively high when the HHS first released the statements, has decreased as the issue has grown more complicated, there is no lack of passion on either side of the debate. The Becket Fund, a law firm involved in a lawsuit challenging the new regulations on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, maintains that “the mandate, as written and finalized, is constitutionally indefensible.”

On the other side, Rachel Sussman, a Planned Parenthood senior policy analyst, declared that the fight to stop the proposal from becoming law was “bad politics … and it’s bad health care.” DiNardo called the dispute itself “needless” and called for a return to more urgent matters, namely, basic health coverage for all.

“Let us begin the task by respecting each other’s values,” he said, “and work for life-affirming health care for all.”

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