WASHINGTON (CNS) – The Catholic Health Association (CHA), a major supporter of President Barack Obama’s health reform law, is urging the government to expand its definition of religious employers who are exempt from the requirement to provide contraceptives and sterilization free of charge to their employees.
In comments filed June 15 with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the top three CHA officials also said the Obama administration should provide and pay for the contraceptives itself if it insists that they must be provided at no cost to women.
The five-page comments were signed by Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and CEO; Robert V. Stanek, who recently completed a term chairing the CHA board; and Joseph R. Swedish, the chairman for 2012-13.
The three said the administration’s proposed “accommodation” that would allow non-exempt religious employers to provide the contraceptives through a third party “would be unduly cumbersome and would be unlikely to meet the religious liberty concerns of all of our members and other church ministries.”
They said the current definition of a religious employer in the HHS rules raises “serious constitutional questions.”
To be exempt from the contraceptive mandate, a religious organization “has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and is a nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
The CHA leaders proposed instead that an organization be defined as religious if it “shares common religious bonds and convictions with a church” – a definition already applied in Section 414 of the Internal Revenue Service code.
Even if the definition is expanded to include Catholic hospitals and health care organizations, as well as other ministries of the church, “the government will need to develop a way to pay for and provide such services directly to those employees who desire such coverage without any direct or indirect involvement of religious employers” under the expanded definition, the CHA comments said.
CHA spokesman Fred Caesar told Catholic News Service that the comment letter is “part of our continuing efforts to work with the administration to resolve this issue appropriately.”
The CHA comments opened by saying that the national leadership organization for the Catholic health care ministry “has long insisted on and worked for the right of everyone to affordable, accessible health care” and had “welcomed the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” and its requirement that “certain preventive services be available at no cost to the individual.”
“We remain deeply concerned, however, with the approach the administration has taken with respect to contraceptive services, especially abortifacient drugs and sterilization,” the letter said.
In a footnote, CHA said the drug known as Ella “can interfere with implantation of a fertilized egg,” which the Catholic Church views as an abortion.
CHA said the administration’s proposed “accommodation” announced Feb. 10 “seemed at the time to be a good first step,” but “our examination and study of the proposal as outlined then (and later) has not relieved our initial concerns.”
As outlined in an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking,” the “accommodation” would allow non-exempt religious employers to contract with a “third-party administrator” or “independent agency” that receive funds from other sources, such as rebates from drug makers, to provide free contraceptives to covered employees.