BIG NEWS: CHA tells HHS “NG on Accommo” UPDATES

I heard the sound of E.J. Dionne screaming and ran to the headlines to see what had happened!

Sharpening an election-year confrontation over religious freedom and government health insurance rules, the nation’s Catholic hospitals on Friday rejected President Barack Obama’s compromise for providing birth control coverage to their women employees.

The Catholic Health Association was a key ally in Obama’s health care overhaul, defying opposition from church bishops to help the president win approval in Congress. But the group said Friday it does not believe church-affiliated employers should have to provide birth control as a free preventive service, as the law now requires.

Honestly, at first I thought I must have misread the copy, but Deacon Greg confirmed, it’s for real, quoting:

In a letter to the federal Health and Human Services department, the hospital group said the compromise initially seemed to be “a good first step” but that examination of the details proved disappointing. The plan would be “unduly cumbersome” to carry out and “unlikely to adequately meet the religious liberty concerns” of all its members, the group said.

This is, as the Deac says, “big news.”. If it seems written in benign fashion by the WaPo, and dropped late on a Friday in summer, Rocco Palmo explains why:

Coming in a five-page letter sent today by the Catholic Health Association to a top HHS administrator, the move (including draft proposals for an acceptable revision of the controversial Federal rule) follows months of tension between the US hierarchy and the association representing some 2,000 Stateside church health facilities, whose president, Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, stoked the ire of much of the hierarchy after voicing her approval of the White House’s February “accommodation” on the plan, which the bishops deemed as being insufficient.

Today’s letter was signed by Keehan, CHA’s current board chair [Joseph R. Swedish], and his designated successor.

Recall that Sister Keehan’s initial approval of the “accommodation”, like Dionne’s, was released via the White House religion press portal almost simultaneously with the WH announcement; it gave enormous political cover to the president, and helped him to divide a church that had — quickly and uncharacteristically — united against the HHS Mandate. Now, she’s walking it back.

That’s why this is a big deal. CHA represents over 600 Catholic hospitals and hundreds of nursing and rehab facilities; that’s a lot of Catholic energy to be out of agreement with the US Bishops. Perhaps they considered the recent (largely media-ignored) lawsuits filed against the Obama administration in 12 jurisdictions by 43 Catholic entities (including Notre Dame University), and began to consider the HHS enterprise a loser. Hard to tell.

In terms of headlines, the temptation will be for some to crow “Dolan 1, Keehan 0″ but given the extraordinary tensions that exist just now between some of our women religious and the hierarchy, let’s call it Churches 1, Obama 0.

I hope the comboxes will not go nuts with the yay’s and nay’s, particularly since the letter itself has apparently not yet been made public, but reportedly includes some recommendations by the CHA as to what would constitute and acceptable “accommodation.”

:::UPDATE::: New Advent has the pdf of the letter. Excerpt:

— The Definition of “Religious Employer” must be Broadened to Cover All Ministries of the Church. (“The most effective way to achieve the [gov't stated goal of protecting religious organizations] would be to actually exempt objecting religious organizations from the mandate by expanding the definition of religious employer to include them…”)

I’ll link to more as I find it, so check back. So far, no real reactions, but the story — big as it is — may be eclipsed by Obama’s new move on illegal immigration. Who knows, perhaps that’s why Obama made his announcement today. This development cannot make him happy. Nor, I bet could the press finally questioning Obama about something

At dotcommonweal, Grant Gallicho ably answers the “why now?”

Last month, after Cardinal Donald Wuerl promised that “the problem goes away if that definition [of religious employer] is changed,” I suggested that the Obama administration ask itself three questions: Is that definition worth the trouble it created? How does it serve the administration’s policy goals? And is it the only way to achieve those goals? The Catholic Health Association believes the answer to the last question is no. Indeed, if the administration follows CHA’s lead, then even more women would be covered — because, under the proposed accommodation, women who work for fully exempt religious employers would not be eligible for free contraception.

In four days, the comment period for the ANPRM ends. The administration would be wise to heed CHA’s advice — and to do so quickly. Backtracking, of course, has never been the most popular of political maneuvers. But, in this case, it might be the smartest. If HHS deep-sixes the disputed definition, what happens to the lawsuits? What happens to the Fortnight for Freedom? Does the president really want to answer questions about this during the debates? Allowing this controversy to simmer much longer could end up costing him key votes — and health-care reform itself.

Yes, Obama now has a chance, thanks to this move by the CHS, to get out from under a very troublesome, poorly thought-out policy idea and make it all go away, if he can bring himself to backtrack. I think he probably can. What do you think?

Frank Weathers Notes the Feastday

Jimmy Akin: Reads the letter and gets fidgety about the moral implications of the CHA more or less telling Obama how he can extricate himself from his mess while actually providing more contraception/sterilization/abortifacient coverage to women but also points out that Keehan’s history on this issue has been more complex than the White House or the press has suggested.

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  • Annie

    Prayer works!
    Thanks and blessings to Sr. Carol and CHS!

  • Fiesta mom

    Well, I know it must be a huge story, b/c the media is ignoring it!

  • Teresa

    Would love to know what made Sister K change her mind and it could be as simple as prayers were answered.

    [the more cynical among us are saying it's just a move to appeal to women...another "war on women" try. But they are cynics, after all. - admin]

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  • Jonathan F. Sullivan

    I’m very happy to see this development. I spent two years working for Trinity Health, the health system Mr. Swedish oversees. Glad to see his name attached to this!

  • Mark K

    Watched the ABC and NBC evening news tonight and didn’t see anything mentioned on this topic. Glad to see the CHA coming around.

  • GP

    Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pray for us!!

  • Manny

    Not going to go nuts. ;) But I am pleasantly surprised.

  • Nancy Reyes

    “our” sisters? You mean the ones who are asking Barabara Marx Hubbard to be their keynote speaker to tell them how we are evolving to a higher evolutionary plane, and how they can join her group?
    Chosing her as a speaker shows they have gone beyond radical feminism into “Art Bell” territory…
    and these good sisters are teaching our vulnerable sisters here in Asia and Africa their heresies, which really worries me.

  • Romulus

    I am not yet sure the CHA has had a change of heart. This could be a tactical repositioning, possibly even one worked out with the White House. While allowing them to save face, preserving their Catholic cred, this latest tack gets the WH most of what it wants, namely a concession from the “alternate magisterium” that normalizes a broad spectrum of anti-life coverage, with conscience carveouts for the exceptional few. It makes it “ok” again for Catholics to vote for Obama.

    I don’t think this is any sort of breakthrough. I think this is a trap.

  • Blake Helgoth

    I must be a cynic because the 1st thing I thought was, wow, I wonder what they found on her.

    [yes, that is pretty cynical. so is the suggestion I read elsewhere, that this was just a move to ingratiate Obama with women voters (war on women). I respect Sr. Carol too much to ascribe to either notion-admin]

  • Teresa B.

    The only problem with opening up the mandate to accommodate all religious employers is that is STILL takes away the rights of Catholic and other Christian employers who do not fall under the heading of “religious.” If we capitulate with just expanding the religious definition we have lost. So religious organizations have their religious liberties protected but NOT the individual citizen and employer. Let’s not fall for that…..

  • Fiesta mom

    I made the mistake of going to the Daily Beast just now. Their headline is “Catholic Hospitals Turn on Obama”, the accompanying picture is a pack of birth control pills. The press disgusts me. They KNOW it’s not about birth control, it’s about liberty, but they have to be all Pravda about it, don’t they? And on the surface, the headline isn’t that bad, but I am a little bit tired of it always being about Obama. Obama and Sebelius turned in the First Amendment. I really am tired of the press….

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  • Bertha

    Oh, wow…this IS big news. You can be sure that if CHA had released a letter confirming their initial support of the HHS mandate, it would be all over the news. Of course this “no go” letter will be widely ignored.

  • Nancy

    So glad to hear of this development! Forget the media-the nightly news spends more time informing us of health issues, celebrities lives, and their own political agendas – I no longer listen to them. Also, great article on Sister Joan Chittiser.

  • Jon D

    I hope Sister Keehan’s arm is not too badly damaged from the twisting.

    [Don't suspect there was much twisting involved -admin]

  • Chris

    Seems awfully convenient to release this two days before the Obamacare decision is made public. Call me cynical, but I bet dollars-to-doughnuts this means they’ve been tipped off that Obamacare is being repealed. i.e., they want to make sure they’re on the correct side and can say “SEE? We’re loyal Catholics.”

  • Practically Catholic

    Surely Obama can’t be surprised by her change of heart given that he too had once made a promise to Cardinal Dolan that he would respect religious rights in the implementation of Obamacare and was guilty of a change of heart. Good for Sister Keehan.

    While this is a step in the right direction, I agree with Teresa B.’s comment above that this doesn’t do anything for other ‘non-religious’ organizations. If I am self-employed and purchase my own health insurance, I will not have the option of opting out of the contraception/sterilization/abortifacient mandate. My rights as an individual, or company owners who happen to object to the mandate (Chick-Fil-A etc…) are still seeing their religious rights violated. This is a step in the right direction… but more work still needs to be done.

    What never ceases to amaze me is that this *WHOLE* thing upon which MILLIONS of dollars are being spent on lawsuits and the like could have been avoided if the Dept of HHS had simply offered TWO plans. One with the offending products/services and one without. Of course, we all know why that didn’t happen and its because the plan *with* the services would have cost more and they couldn’t have then offered those services ‘for free’. This, tied in with the recent revelations between Obama and the Big Pharma companies makes me sick to my stomach. There is no doubt in my mind that this was orchestrated during those talks that took place behind closed doors. Pharma co’s make a lot of $$ off contraceptives.

  • Siobhan

    Do you by chance have contact information for Sr. Carol Keehan so we can write to her and thank her for standing up and being Catholic?

  • Fr. Peter

    Even if definition of religious employer is expanded there will be no protections fro Catholics in non-religious businesses. The only acceptable solution is withdrawal of the mandate or giving a conscience exemption to anyone who would ask for it. Otherwise we leave our people hanging out to dry to protect institutional interests.

  • David R. Graham

    It’s a political trap. It’s special consideration. It’s accepting partiality. It dirties giver and receiver.

  • enness

    Fortnight for Freedom should continue. We need to remember not to be complacent; it doesn’t end here.

  • Sarah Rolph

    Some people at the end of my street have a big sign up that says:

    Obama and Warren
    Against Religious Freedom

    (I live in Mass, where Elizabeth Warren is running against Scott Brown)

    It’s a wonderful sign, very clearly homemade, but sturdy, made out of wood and plexiglass so it withstands the rain. Someone took the Obama part off one day but it was immediately back and has stayed (I guess they sealed it up better).

    Free speech in action, I love it. You don’t have to be a blogger to make your voice count!

  • Margaret

    I think this is a case of the rats deserting the sinking ship. Well she can run but she cannot hide. Like Bart Stupak, Carol Keehan will be forever linked to Obamacare in the mind of Catholic Americans.

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