Area Catholic colleges and other religious-based employers are considering their options in the wake of a federal order that they must provide birth-control coverage to women employees by Aug. 1, 2013.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services issued a rule last Friday that religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations will have to provide coverage. The rule states affiliated groups must provide a broad range of services, from implanted contraceptive devices to the morning-after pill.
It’s part of a package of preventive services under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul that most workplace health plans will have to cover free to employees.
The order is drawing fire from institutions that see it as a violation of the right to religious freedom.
“This is quite a problem for us,” said Brother John R. Paige, president of Holy Cross College. “By demanding that we provide contraceptive services, it puts us in direct opposition to our church.” Holy Cross has at least 60 eligible employees on its health care plan.
Paige said he and other college leaders thought dialogue between religious organizations and the federal government would result in exceptions on religious grounds. The announcement Friday was unexpected, he said.
“It seems to me that this is a real intrusion of the federal government into something that for us, as Roman Catholics, is a grave moral concern,” Paige said. “We have to evaluate our options. I don’t know what they are. It’s too new.”
Under the University of Notre Dame’s current medical plan, employees cannot receive reimbursement for oral contraceptives, contraceptive devices or contraceptive implants, except when specifically requested by a physician based on medical necessity and for purposes other than contraception.
The Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, issued a written statement saying he is deeply disappointed in the federal decision.
“This unnecessary intervention by the government into religion disregards our nation’s commitment to the rights of conscience and the long-standing work of religious groups to help build a more compassionate society and vibrant democracy. I find that profoundly troubling on many levels.
“Moving forward, we call for a national dialogue among religious groups, government and the American people to reaffirm our country’s historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty,” he wrote.
“We’re reviewing all options and will work in conjunction with the (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) and other Catholic and non-Catholic religious organizations on how best to proceed to protect religious freedom,” Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown said.
Saint Mary’s College offers a health-care plan similar to Notre Dame’s — it covers the cost of contraceptives only in cases where use is physician-recommended based on medical reasons. “We’re really going to have to take time to study the regulation itself and the next step we may have to take,” said Sister Veronique Wiedower, vice president for mission for the Catholic women’s college.
A Saint Joseph’s Regional Medical Center spokeswoman deferred comment about the hospital’s current coverage or how it might be affected to CEO Albert Gutierrez, who was unavailable Wednesday.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship are exempt from the rule.
However, the order is expected to apply to other religious entities, such as the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, including its teachers and other employees in K-12 Catholic schools.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades is “heartbroken and outraged” by the federal order, said Sean McBride, diocese communications director. The diocese has nearly 3,000 employees and 1,150 of them are on the insurance plan.
The issue may require action to change the health-care law, such as seeking help from members of Congress to expand the definition of groups that are exempted from the birth-control coverage mandate for religious reasons, said Fred Everett, the bishop’s assistant. “We are committed to not violating our conscience,” he said.
Bethel College in Mishawaka already offers birth-control coverage in its health insurance for employees. The only effect of the ruling will be that Bethel will have to pay the full cost, college spokesman Jaimee Bingle said. Employees currently have a co-pay.
“We don’t have the data right now to know how much more it would cost us once the change takes place, but we don’t see it as a hardship for us,” she said.
Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe: