Their bluff has been called, will the bishops know when to fold ’em?

Their bluff has been called, will the bishops know when to fold ’em? February 10, 2012

Well, I didn’t expect this.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have spent the week denying that they’re simply trying to prohibit health insurance from covering contraception. It’s not about that, they insisted, but about religious liberty.

Today, President Barack Obama called their bluff, carving out an “accomodation” that removes any grounds for a complaint about “freedom conscience” or “religious liberty,” while firmly insisting that the law is still the law, and that the law rightly prohibits discrimination against women in preventive health insurance.

Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, says her group “is very pleased with today’s White House resolution” and insists that it “protects religious liberty and conscience rights.”

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, praised the White House for “ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work.”

I’ll turn to Jodi Jacobson for a summary of the change, since following this news is what she does. “White House Amends Birth Control Mandate: Contraceptive Coverage to be Offered Directly from Insurers,” Jacobson writes:

Today, the White House did the right thing for women, public health and human rights. Despite deep concerns, including my own, based on what transpired in the past under health reform, the White House has decided on a plan to address the birth control mandate that will enable women to get contraceptive coverage directly through their insurance plans without having to buy a rider or a second plan, and without having to negotiate with or through religious entities or administrations that are hostile to primary reproductive health care, including but not limited to contraception.

Under this plan, every insurance company will be obligated to provide contraceptive coverage. Administration officials stated that a woman’s insurance company “will be required to reach out directly and offer her contraceptive care free of charge. The religious institutions will not have to pay for it.”

Moreover, women will not have to opt in or out; contraceptive care will be part of the basic package of benefits offered to everyone. Contraceptive care will simply be “part of the bundle of services that all insurance companies are required to offer,” said a White House official.

“We are actually more comfortable having the insurance industry offer and market this to women than religious institutions,” said the White House official because they “understand how contraception works” to prevent unintended pregnancy and reduce health care costs. “This makes sense financially.”

The way it works is this: Insurers will create policy not including contraceptive coverage in the contract for religious organizations that object. Second, the same insurance company must simultaneously offer contraceptive coverage to all employees, and can not charge an additional premium. This provides free contraceptive coverage to women. The reason this works for insurance companies is because offering contraception is cost-neutral and cost-effective; companies realize the tremendous cost benefits of spacing pregnancies, and limiting unintended pregnancies, planned pregnancies and health benefits of contraception.

White House officials, speaking on background, said that the accommodation — which they stress is not a compromise — fulfills two principals. One is that all women will have access to the health care they need no matter where they work; their access to contraceptive services is guaranteed. “No longer will they have to struggle to pay for it,” said the White House official. At the same time, “we are able to respect the beliefs of religious institutions.” These are two principals, the official said, “that the White House holds dear.”

The rule will be applied to all but the original institutions that were exempted — those for which religious inculcation is their primary purpose — and will not be expanded to include other entities such as hospitals, clinics, or social service organizations.

This is a bit tricky since, as Ezra Klein notes, “there’s a difference between ‘revenue neutral’ and ‘free.’” That distinction leads Kevin Drum to say that “Angels Are Now Waltzing on the Edge of a Healthcare Plan.”

But still, the bottom line is this: Obama gave the bishops everything they claimed they wanted, but not what they really wanted. He gave them everything they asked for, but not the thing they adamantly denied they were seeking. The bishops’ bluff has been called.

Scott Lemieux thinks that’s pretty nifty. “Checkmate,” he writes. BooMan is blunter, saying this accommodation gives the bishops “About what they deserve.”

After all the week’s “Pills ‘n Thrills and Bellyaches,” TBogg sums it up in three words: “Who wins? Women.” He concludes:

It would be in the Catholic bishops’ best interests to claim victory and go home since this takes them out out of the equation, allowing them to do what they do best: pretending that they don’t know that their flock is already telling the Vatican to pound sand by using birth control. They’re not going to like it, but absent total surrender from the White House, they’ve lost whatever high ground they believed they had since the Obama administration has created a compelling illusion of having compromised. Besides, for the bishops, their own house is on fire again and they may want to see to that.

Charlie Pierce is less optimistic, noting that:

[Obama] has proposed a reasonable alternative: the institutions don’t have to provide contraception, but the insurance companies will be required to offer it with no co-pays. In other words, priests don’t kill sperm, insurance companies do.

The problem … is that he has proposed a reasonable alternative to two of the most unreasonable institutions on the planet — the insurance companies and the Roman Catholic Church. … The president has left himself dependent on the avaricious to bail him out against the arrogant. This is not a comfortable place to be.

Oh, and in case you skimmed past the link embedded in that excerpt from TBogg, it leads to this: “8,000 instances of abuse alleged in Archdiocese [of Milwaukee] bankruptcy hearing.”

Say what you will about Joe Paterno, but at least he didn’t spend his last few miserable weeks proclaiming himself to be the standard-bearer for morality or pretending that he was being unfairly persecuted.


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