Catholic Health Association Breaks with Bishops on HHS Birth Control Compromise

If you think women who work for Catholic hospitals should be able to access contraceptives as part of comprehensive health care packages, now would be a good time to celebrate a small victory.

Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO Catholic Health Association (CHAUSA), has accepted the compromise that Obama’s administration offered to Catholic non-profits. Keehan has officially stated that, while Obama’s latest effort is not ideal, “it was a solution that we could make work, because it allows our members not to have to buy, contract for, refer, or arrange for contraceptive services.”

There’s just one small problem: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops disagrees.

The controversy over contraceptive services in health insurance has been raging on for months. Since Catholic doctrine claims contraception is sinful, argue a wide range of Catholic employers, they should be free to exclude birth control coverage from employees’ earned benefits.

The mandate has always allowed a religious exemption for houses of worship, but never for Catholic hospitals, schools, or charities. And no matter what compromises and loopholes Obama has offered up thus far, anything that lets employees in Church-affiliated workplaces access contraceptive care without paying through the nose has been dismissed as just plain not-good-enough.

According to the new rules the Obama administration clarified late in June, insurers will handle contraceptive coverage directly, keeping employers out of the loop, in the dark, and innocent of all wrongdoing. NPR described it this way:

For entities that purchase insurance, the insurer would undertake (and pay for) the task of providing the coverage. For organizations that are self-insured and simply use an insurance company to do the paperwork, the company, acting as an administrator, would be reimbursed by the federal government through a complex structure involving the new health exchanges.

In a conference call with reporters, HHS officials said they weren’t concerned about the cost to insurance companies — paying for birth control is a lot cheaper than paying for pregnancy and childbirth.

So the insurance companies will take care of all the arrangements, ensuring that Catholic-run non-profits don’t have to sully their hands with coverage they don’t like, while preventing larger expenses down the road. Meanwhile, women get the medicine they need and earn. Everybody wins — except, the bishops argue, religious employers, who still don’t get to prevent their employees from getting non-Catholic-approved health care.

In a letter sent to Congress and the White House, the USCCB called the solution Keehan accepted “an encroachment on the conscience of our fellow citizens” and argued that women who want to have birth control covered in their health plans are free to refuse to work for Catholic organizations — a claim that, in an economic climate where millions of unemployed young people can’t afford to be choosy, seems deeply disingenuous.

Conservative Catholic and evangelical groups, as well as anti-abortion groups of all stripes, are rushing to support the bishops and cast aspersions on Keehan and CHAUSA. A spokesperson for Human Life International, speaking to religious news agency LifeSite News, noted that

Nothing in the final HHS Mandate rules changes the fact that Catholics in the United States will be required to violate their conscientious objection to immoral practices and services in violation of our First Amendment rights… Not one Catholic individual should be forced by the government to violate our religious beliefs, and I would expect any organization that represents Catholics to feel the same way.

There has been no comment — from the USCCB, Human Life International, or any other quarter — about whether women are free to use their earned benefits to obtain birth control, as if that’s not a matter of conscience and belief deeply tied to women’s individual rights and freedoms.

Nor has anyone yet been able to explain why the way a worker uses her insurance coverage is any of her employers’ business, anyway.

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.