Birth Control Coverage vs Religious Employers
Friday, November 4, 2011 at 01:13PM
Sheila Reynertson in birth contoll, contraceptive coverage, health care reform, health insurance, merger, reproductive health

"Why should the conscience of an employer trump the conscience of a woman?" That was the question posed by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois on November 2nd at a House subcommittee hearing on demands that all religiously-affiliated employers and insurers be exempted from having to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

The hearing was convened by Rep. Joseph Pitts, chairman of the subcommittee on health for the Committee on Energy and Commerce, who is well known as anti-choice and anti-health reform. The hearing focused on the new women’s preventive services coverage rules announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in August, including a requirement that health plans begin to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives without charging co-pays starting next year.

HHS proposed a narrowly-crafted exemption for religious employers, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association have been arguing that the exemption should be broadened to cover all Catholic employers, such as hospitals, schools, colleges and social services agencies. In his testimony, William J. Cox, President and CEO of Alliance of Catholic Health Care (CA), threatened to sue if the rule goes through without a broader religious exemption. Witness David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical Association, testified that that birth control coverage creates a "climate of coercion" for “pro-life” doctors.

Over 750,000 health care workers are currently employed by Catholic hospitals and many women employed by these institutions are disproportionately affected by the institutional refusal to provide health insurance coverage for birth control and sterilization procedures. These women and their families know firsthand the burden this denial of coverage has on their ability to afford health care. Oral contraception can cost $50 per month and a tubal ligation can cost up to $6000. Lack of contraceptive coverage forces them to make reproductive decisions they would not otherwise have made because they are unable to manage the additional financial burden of paying for contraceptive care out-of-pocket. In the words of Rep. Jane Schakowsky, it is “counter-productive, unfair and paternalistic.”

Denial of contraceptive coverage for employees has always been an underreported issue in cases of secular hospitals becoming part of a Catholic health system. The issue tends to be overlooked while the larger components of a partnership are being negotiated. Only after the two hospital systems have merged do employees of the formerly secular hospital discover that their comprehensive coverage has been compromised.  This issue is now receiving the media attention it deserves thanks to this proposed rule. In Louisville, KY, as a large secular/religious merger continues to draw controversy, legislators and nurses are now questioning why a particular religious faith should be imposed upon people who don’t necessarily adhere to its tenets. 

Back at the subcommittee hearing, our allies in the House of Representatives defended access to contraception without cost-sharing because they know what women need to stay healthy and have healthy pregnancies and babies. They stressed that decisions on health care coverage need to be evidence-based, not based on the values of a particular employer. “Today's hearing has nothing to do with religious rights. It's about women's access to comprehensive health coverage,” said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey.

HHS will finalize the controversial rule after it has reviewed the 100,000 submitted comments it has received.  In the meantime, support employees of Catholic institutions and employees of secular hospitals yet to be acquired by Catholic health systems by demanding that they receive all the benefits of health care reform like the rest of us.  Contact the White House today and tell President Obama that you agree with medical experts that contraception is preventive care and that religious employers should not be able to leave contraceptive coverage out of their insurance plans.

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