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Catholic Leaders Call for Broader Exemption To Preventive Services Coverage Rules

Catholic Leaders Call for Broader Exemption To Preventive Services Coverage Rules

September 29, 2011 — Catholic organizations across the country are urging HHS to adopt a broader religious exemption to new rules that will require health plans to cover contraceptive services without cost-sharing by their members, the Wall Street Journal reports. The new rules are part of a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that will require health plans to cover certain preventive services without copayments, coinsurance or deductibles (Maher, Wall Street Journal, 9/29).

The proposed religious exemption applies to not-for-profit groups that have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose, primarily employ individuals who hold certain religious beliefs and primarily serve a population with those religious tenets. HHS said the "regulation is modeled on the most common accommodation for churches available in the majority of the 28 states that already require insurance companies to cover contraception" (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/2).

HHS is accepting comments on the exemption's language until Friday to help "strike the right balance between expanding prevention coverage and respecting religious beliefs," spokesperson Richard Sorian said.

Several Catholic leaders and some members of Congress have called on HHS to broaden the exemption, noting that most Catholic social service agencies, universities, hospitals and nursing homes would not be exempt because they frequently employ and serve non-Catholics. Catholic churches nationwide also have been urging parishioners to contact HHS to ask for a broader exemption. Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik said, "The point is we're being asked to pay for services that go against our beliefs."

Zubik said many Catholic employers would drop health insurance coverage and risk losing employees if the exemption is not broadened. Some might close rather than restrict their employment and services to only Catholics to meet the exemption criteria, according to Zubik.

Sister Carol Keehan -- CEO of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, which represents Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and other organizations -- sent a letter to HHS asking that the exemption be broadened to any organization that "shares common religious bonds and convictions with a church." Keenan's language is modeled on a section of federal tax code related to health, pension and welfare plans offered by religious entities (Wall Street Journal, 9/29).

The Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, also asked the administration to use the definition used by the Internal Revenue Service. Jenkins said the current proposal runs contrary to the sensible approach to reproductive health issues that President Obama called for in a commencement speech at the Catholic university in May 2009 (Coyne, AP/Miami Herald, 9/28).

The American Civil Liberties Union and many other groups oppose a religious exemption for health insurance coverage. "We think it's essential for women that contraception be covered among other preventive services," Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel at ACLU, said (Wall Street Journal, 9/29).