WASHINGTON (CNS) – The chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities called on members of the U.S. Senate Feb. 15 to solve conscience protection problems with the federal health reform law by passing the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.
By resolving a "needless dispute," Congress and the Obama administration "could return to the most pressing of all the real problems – the fact that many millions of Americans still lack basic coverage for health care," said Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.
In a three-page letter to senators, Cardinal DiNardo said the legislation – which now has 37 sponsors in the Senate – might come up for a vote soon, "either as a free-standing bill or an amendment."
Calling the bill "needed, reasonable and carefully crafted," he said it "simply ensures that new requirements" under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act "are not used to take away a freedom of conscience that Americans have enjoyed under federal law until now."
The bishops "saw the need for this legislation," the cardinal said, when Congress passed health care reform and "authorized new lists of federally mandated benefits for all health plans without including language to preserve rights of conscience."
The cardinal rejected the final rule announced Feb. 10 by President Barack Obama that would allow organizations with religious objections to the Department of Health and Human Services' requirement that all health insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization to decline to cover them, but then compel the insurers to provide contraceptives free of charge to women they insure.
Under that plan, religious employers will be required to "include the same objectionable coverage as purely secular employers do – but the decision to do so will simply be taken away from them, as the coverage will be inserted into their plan directly by the insurer over their objections," he said.
The objecting employers will still pay for the coverage, he added, because it "will be integrated into their overall health plan and subsidized with the premiums paid by employer and employee for that plan."
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius first announced the contraception requirement along with a religious exemption Jan. 20. Catholic and other religious leaders say the exemption is written so narrowly that institutions such as hospitals, schools and social service agencies would not qualify.
Since Obama announced his final rule, questions have been raised over how it will pertain to self-insured parties, like many dioceses and Catholic organizations.
Cardinal DiNardo called the contraception requirement "a radical departure from current law, under which a health plan that excludes contraception can be sold even to federal employees if the carrier has any religious objections to such coverage."
"In short, we are back to square one – except that the rule so many hoped would change to accommodate Americans' right of conscience is no longer subject to change, except by legislation," he said.
The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act stipulates that the list of mandated benefits under the health reform law will not forbid those who provide, sponsor or purchase health coverage from negotiating a health plan that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.
The cardinal also offered rebuttals to some misinterpretations about what the proposed law would and would not do:
– No "stakeholder in the health coverage enterprise" would be required to provide or accept the negotiated plan. "But if all involved find an accommodation acceptable and workable, why would the federal government not allow it – as it always has in the past?" he asked.
– It does not overturn other existing state or federal laws, including present state contraceptive mandates.
– It would not "provide any support for discriminatory decisions to withhold basic coverage from some while giving it to others," such as a decision to deny life-saving care to people with AIDS or the virus that causes it.
– It would not "allow anyone to deny coverage for high-cost treatments, using morality and religion as a pretext."
Cardinal DiNardo said the Catholic Church, "driven precisely by its faith, is eager to work with Congress and the administration to address (the) grave problem" of the lack of basic health care for millions.
"Let us begin the task by respecting each other's values that call so many of us to work for life-affirming health care for all in the first place," he added.