As the nation’s leading Roman Catholic bishop, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York has been spearheading the fight against a provision of the new health care law that requires employers, including some that are religiously affiliated, to cover birth control in employee health plans.
But even as Cardinal Dolan insists that requiring some religiously affiliated employers to pay for contraception services would be an unprecedented, and intolerable, government intrusion on religious liberty, the archdiocese he heads has quietly been paying for such coverage, albeit reluctantly and indirectly, for thousands of its unionized employees for over a decade.
The Archdiocese of New York has previously acknowledged that some local Catholic institutions offer health insurance plans that include contraceptive drugs to comply with state law; now, it is also acknowledging that the archdiocese’s own money is used to pay for a union health plan that covers contraception and even abortion for workers at its affiliated nursing homes and clinics.
“We provide the services under protest,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York.
As president of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Dolan has consistently rejected similar arm’s-length compromises offered by the Obama administration, which has agreed to exempt many religious institutions from the provision, but not religiously affiliated employers like schools and hospitals that employ people of many faiths and do not exist primarily to inculcate religious values.
In February, the bishops opposed a proposal that would have allowed employees of those nonexempt religious institutions to receive contraceptive coverage through policies paid for directly by insurance companies. The New York Archdiocese is also suing the federal government to stop the mandate.
“There remains the possibility that ministries may yet be forced to fund and facilitate such morally illicit activities,” Cardinal Dolan said at the time.
The archdiocese agreed to cover its own health workers long before Cardinal Dolan became archbishop of New York, and even today insists that it has no choice. As a result, about 3,000 full-time workers at ArchCare, also known as the Catholic Health Care System, receive coverage for contraception and voluntary pregnancy termination through their membership in 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, a powerful health care workers union, according to Dave Bates, a spokesman for the union.
ArchCare, which operates seven nursing homes and a variety of other health facilities, gives its 1199 union employees the same coverage they would get at over 100 other nonprofit hospitals or nursing homes in the New York area, because ArchCare voluntarily belongs to the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes, a multi-employer organization that negotiates with the union every few years for a joint labor contract.
Bruce McIver, the president of the league since 1991, said he recalled that some Catholic organizations had expressed concern about paying for the contraception benefits in the mid- to late 1990s. But in recent years, as the number of Catholic hospitals in the city dwindled, “they just kind of stopped, from my perspective, paying attention to this issue,” he said.
“Eventually, the Catholics just said, you know, we are going to ignore the issue and pay into the fund and people are going to make their own choices about contraception and so forth,” Mr. McIver said.
During union negotiations, “I don’t remember it coming up in the last dozen years or so, ever,” he said. “In a place like New York, their employees, not all of whom are Catholic, would react pretty badly.”
ArchCare, like other employers in the league, does not directly pay for the coverage. Instead, employers contribute to the union’s National Benefits Fund, in amounts equal to roughly 25 percent of each employee’s base pay; that money is used to pay for the insurance coverage. It is not known how many ArchCare workers actually use the disputed services.
Mr. Zwilling, the spokesman for the New York archdiocese, said that Cardinal John J. O’Connor and the archdiocese “objected to these services’ being included in the National Benefit Fund’s health insurance plan” when joining the league in the 1990s. But the cardinal then decided “there was no other option if the Catholic Church was to continue to provide health care to these union-affiliated employees in the city of New York,” Mr. Zwilling said.
Sarah Lipton-Lubet, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the contraception mandate, sees the matter differently.
“I can’t begin to understand the argument that coverage that has been part of the plan for however many years is suddenly anathema,” she said.