September 30 marked the end of the public comment period on the “preventive services” mandate from the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which fails to provide conscience protection and requires private health plans to cover female surgical sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs which can kill an unborn child before and after implantation in the mother’s womb. HHS is empowered to take this action under the 2010 health care reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).
Now that the September 30 deadline has passed, many of you are asking, “What happens next?” There are a few possibilities. The first, based on the feedback they have received, HHS could make a rule change to correct this obvious religious liberty violation. The second possible option would be to correct the mandate through federal legislation. Since Congress failed to include conscience language in PPACA, many individuals and groups, including the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) and Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association (PCHA), have urged Congress to adopt a Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. It would prevent PPACA from creating new coverage mandates that violate insurers’ and purchasers’ moral and religious beliefs. The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act was introduced in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1179), and a companion bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate (S. 1467). This measure will ensure that those who participate in the health care system “retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health insurance coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.” Contact members of Congress in support of Respect for Rights of Conscience. The third possible course of action is litigation. As you may know from news reports, PPACA is being challenged in courts right now. Further, it is possible that the preventative services mandate and the narrow religious employer exemption will be challenged in court
This mandate is an egregious violation of religious liberty, the long-held freedom of religious people and organizations to live according to their beliefs. Simply put, Catholic institutions and employers would be forced to pay for drugs that cause abortions, as well as sterilization and contraception, even though Catholic teaching upholds the sanctity of life beginning at conception.
Some of you have also asked, “Isn’t there a religious exemption?” The current HHS rule allows an exemption for a “religious employer,” which the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) says is defined so narrowly “as to exclude most Catholic social services agencies and healthcare providers and Catholic colleges and universities.” Is this a threat to be taken seriously? The USCCB has formed new ad hoc committee on religious liberties, so obviously they don’t think this is going away. As you can see, this is a larger issue than solely that of abortion-causing drugs and contraception. At issue is the ability for a Catholic organization to be true to its identity. If this rule stands, Catholic organizations will not be able to, well, be Catholic.
Now that the time for public comment to HHS has passed, all concerned citizens should visit, call, fax or e-mail their members of Congress urging them to co-sponsor and support H.R. 1179 and S. 1467.
Joelle Shea is the Director of Outreach for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.