US Catholic hospitals agree to employee birth control coverage

(Photo: Susan Biddle)Sr. Carol Keehan of Catholic Health Association on August 20, 2012.

The group representing Catholic hospitals in the United States has issued a statement which says it no longer opposes a new federal law which requires that employers provide free birth control coverage to their employees.

The Catholic Health Association (CHA) said it accepted a compromise from the administration of President Barack Obama on the issue.

(Photo: REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi)Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the U.S. arrives for a meeting at the Synod Hall at the Vatican, March 9, 2013. Roman Catholic cardinals will enter a conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict on March 12, the Vatican said on Friday, with no clear favourite emerging so far to take charge of the troubled Church.

The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) published the announcement from the CHA this week.

The memorandum from the CHA said, "HHS (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) has now established an accommodation that will allow our ministries to continue offering health insurance plans for their employees as they have always done."

We are pleased that our members now have an accommodation that will not require them to contract, provide, pay or refer for contraceptive coverage."

The compromise, according to the Associated Press (AP), creates a buffer for religious organizations by requiring that insurers or the health plan administrator fund the birth control coverage, not the employer.

Furthermore, it also provides a means to reimburse them for the cost of doing so.

The acceptance of the Obama administration's accommodation puts the CHA at odds with U.S. bishops, who continue to oppose the HHS mandate.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said last week that the compromise represented no significant changes to the issues which caused them to oppose the HHS mandate in the first place.

The president of the USCCB, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, said that the bishops would continue to fight the mandate in court.

Catholic World News (CWN) reported that the bishops still believe the contraception coverage infringes on the U.S. Constitution's provisions for religious freedom.

Sister Carol Keehan, the president of CHA, said that Obama administrations final ruling on birth control was not what her organization would have preferred, according to U.S.-based National Public Radio (NPR).

"But it was a solution that we could make work, because it allows our members not to have to buy, contract for, refer or arrange for contraceptive services," she said.

"It was really important that this be workable from a legal and theological perspective," she added. "That's what we believe we have achieved."

The CHA and bishops have been on opposite ends of the debate over the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, the new federal law which eventually will provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.

The CHA has supported the law while the bishops have opposed it.

Churches and houses of worship are exempt from the requirements of Obamacare

Especially egregious to opponents of the mandate is coverage for forms of birth control which can be classified as abortifacients.

Scores of lawsuits have been filed by religious groups and business owners. The heads of these organizations say the contraceptive coverage requires that they violate their consciences.

Court rulings generally have been in their favor thus far. Many of the lawsuits have been successful in delaying implementation of the mandate.

It is expected that the issue will eventually end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. bishops have supported the claims of Catholic business owners who do not want to have to offer the contraceptive coverage.

Keehan she said that this requirement did not fall into the purview of the CHA.

"We have said from the start that our issue was much narrower than the issues the bishops were working on," said Keehan. "Our contribution to solving the problem was to deal with religious organizations."

Their latest disagreement over the requirements of Obamacare is not expected to affect the relationship between the bishops and the CHA.

NPR quoted Keehan saying he had informed the bishops of the CHA decision on the compromise before going public.

Journalist Michael Sean Winters wrote in NCR, "What is unlikely in the next few months is any kind of public fight between the bishops and CHA like the one that accompanied the legislative battle over the Affordable Care Act in the first place. Neither side seems eager for a repeat of that fight."

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