The U.S. Senate urgently needs to support legislation that would apply longstanding federal law on conscience protection to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
In a February 15, 2012, letter to all Senators, Cardinal DiNardo explained how the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act" (S. 1476) is especially needed since a new mandate by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will force almost all health insurance plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including drugs that can cause an early abortion, and sterilizations. Even many religious organizations will not be exempt from the mandate.
This rule, Cardinal DiNardo noted, was finalized on February 10. On the same day the White House announced it would develop a mechanism for applying the rule to non-exempt religious employers, claiming it would shift costs for contraceptive coverage to insurers.
"It is little or no comfort that, rather than being forced to propose such coverage, religious organizations will simply have it imposed on them," Cardinal DiNardo said. "The argument that they will not really have to subsidize the coverage, because insurers will offer it 'free of charge,' runs up against the reality that this coverage will be integrated into their overall health plan, and subsidized with the premiums paid by employer and employee for that plan."
He added, "The Administration's rule makes no provision for the rights of insurers, even religiously affiliated insurers, but places responsibility for enforcing the mandate more squarely than ever on their shoulders. This is 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 objection to such coverage."
Cardinal DiNardo outlined the scope of the proposed Senate bill, noting that it does not support discriminatory decisions to withhold basic coverage, does not free anyone from responsibilities under other state or federal laws, and does not allow anyone to deny coverage for high-cost treatments using morality and religion as a pretext.
Cardinal DiNardo explained what the bill does achieve: "It states that the new lists of mandated benefits for private health plans created under PPACA will not forbid those who provide, sponsor and purchase health coverage to negotiate a health plan that is consistent with the religious beliefs and moral convictions of those involved." Thus, he said, "It simply ensures that new requirements under PPACA are not used to take away a freedom of conscience that Americans have enjoyed under federal law until now.
"If the needless dispute over this issue were resolved through this legislation, Congress and the 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 that supports and sustains life," Cardinal DiNardo said. "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."
The full text of the letter is available online: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/upload/DearSenatorfeb151.pdf.