February 17, 2012

Despite president’s ‘accommodation,’ local Church leaders are determined to defend religious liberty

By Sean Gallagher

Leaders in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and other Catholic organizations in central and southern Indiana remain determined to defend religious liberty, and want Catholics across the state and nation to join them in this effort.

They also expressed skepticism about the Feb. 10 announcement by President Barack Obama that an “accommodation” had been made in a U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) regulation requiring most religious organizations to provide contraceptives and sterilizations in their health insurance plans for their employees.

According to Obama, insurance companies will now pay for these medicines and procedures, not religious employers.

But Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, apostolic administrator, said from Rome, during his ad limina visit, in an e-mail interview that “nothing has changed” for Catholic organizations and private employers across the nation.

“The announcement is basically a distinction without a difference,” Bishop Coyne told The Criterion. “We are still going to have to violate Church teaching by providing access to contraception through our health insurance policies.

“It is not just about who pays for it. It is about how it is provided and who provides it. We do. As far as the HHS mandate goes, we need to fight this one all the way. If not, this is only the beginning in terms of allowing the government to determine how people of faith will be allowed to live their faith.”

For the time being, though, the health insurance plan offered to employees of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis won’t be forced to offer contraceptives and sterilizations, said Edward Isakson, archdiocesan director of human resources.

That is because it has not been significantly changed since Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordaable Care Act into law in March 2010. Therefore, the plan has been “grandfathered” in, Isakson said.

“We’re hopeful that we can maintain grandfathered status for several years,” he said.

In the meantime, Isakson said it will be important for archdiocesan Catholics to take action to promote the elimination of the HHS regulation.

“Our protection is short term,” he said. “We cannot forever think that we can maintain grandfathered status. At some point, the rise in costs of health care will exceed our ability to adjust our plan within the limits that we’ve been given.”

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public policy advocate for the Church in Indiana, said Catholics raising their voices in greater numbers will be vital to bring about the regulation’s removal.

Tebbe said that approximately 57,000 Catholics across the United States voiced their concern to HHS officials after the regulation was announced last August.

“But what we need is 557,000,” Tebbe said. “We need 5,057,000. That’s what’s going to get their attention. That’s what’s going to cause Congress to act.”

Tebbe said Catholics across central and southern Indiana can contact their U.S. representatives, senators and the White House about the HHS regulation through the Indiana Catholic Conference’s website at www.indianacc.org by clicking on “Legislative Action Center.”

While some religious employers like the Archdiocese of Indianapolis won’t fall under the HHS regulation immediately because their health insurance plan was grandfathered in, other religious employers in the archdiocese aren’t as fortunate. One is Franciscan St. Francis Health, a network of hospitals and health care providers in Indianapolis and Mooresville.

It is part of the larger Franciscan Alliance system that has 14 hospitals in Illinois and Indiana, and employs more than 18,000 people.

Kevin Leahy, Franciscan Alliance’s president and CEO, was skeptical about Obama’s announcement that insurance companies would pay for contraceptives and sterilizations, not religious employers.

“The cost of contraceptives, and other ‘preventative’ services, will be built into the overall cost of insurance premiums charged to employers, including faith-based employers, by their insurance carrier,” said Leahy in a press release. “Thus, the president is still coercing faith-based organizations to pay for services that violate their beliefs.”

He also wondered how the revised regulation would apply to self-insured religious employers. In such cases, insurance companies only use the funds of the employers themselves to pay for services.

Isakson said that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and a large majority of dioceses in the U.S. are self-insured.

“The new policy requiring insurers to pay the cost isn’t helpful to most large employers, including large Catholic employers and including the Archdiocese of Indianapolis,” he said.

Isakson has worked as the archdiocese’s human resources director for nearly 20 years. In that time, he has closely followed governmental regulations of employee benefits.

“This is an unprecedented intrusion on religious liberty,” Isakson said. “It’s requiring the Church in the United States to do something that goes against what we believe, which is very frightening, actually. If this occurs, you wonder what will be next in terms of limitations on churches to practice what they believe.”

Tebbe agreed and said that this regulation, even in its revised form, impinges on the religious freedom of Catholics and the Church, and opens the door to possible future limitations.

“This issue is not going to go away in a short time,” Tebbe said. “We’re going to have to go the long haul on this. We’re going to have multiple times that we’re going to have to call people to action. It’s just that important.

“It goes to the fundamental nature of our Church. It goes to the fundamental liberties of our nation. It’s that important.”

(To learn more about the Church’s efforts to overturn the HHS regulation requiring religious employers to offer contraceptives and sterilization in their health insurance plans and to join in that effort, log on to www.indianacc.org and click on “Legislative Action Center” or log on to www.usccb.org/conscience.)

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