MISHAWAKA, Ind. — While the nation is embroiled in a battle over whether Catholic employers can be forced to provide contraception coverage, the Mishawaka, Ind.-based Franciscan Alliance has taken a pioneering step to provide witness to the Catholic alternative to contraception. As of July, the alliance began offering a natural family planning benefit to all employees.
“We have to credit an employee with coming up with the idea. Sometimes the best ideas come from employees,” said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairwoman of Franciscan Alliance, which operates 14 hospitals in Indiana and Illinois. After an employee raised the possibility, the alliance acted on the suggestion.
Pending the outcome of a lawsuit, however, the alliance will still be required to implement the so-called “contraception mandate” of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The alliance was founded and is supported by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, who were sent from Germany to Indiana by the order’s founder in 1875 to establish hospitals, schools and orphanages.
Sister Jane Marie says that the NFP benefit will provide employees with “a way to understand how to achieve or avoid pregnancy consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church.”
“We’re just rolling the benefit out now,” she said. She said the alliance’s understanding is that an NFP course costs around $500. The alliance will pay for 80% of that. “We’ll do this twice, if necessary,” she added.
“We will help you achieve your goal in a way that is in accordance with the Catholic spirit and Catholic teaching,” Sister Jane Marie said. She does not know of any other Catholic employer that offers this benefit, but recognizes that it is something that could catch on in Catholic organizations.
Fred Caesar, spokesman for the Catholic Health Association of the United States, said that he knows of no database that indicates whether other Catholic institutions are making an NFP benefit available.
John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, however, said that providing such a benefit sounds like a good idea.
“To help employees to care for and manage their fertility in ways that are effective and ethical, Catholic employers need to provide options that are accessible,” Brehany said.
“Since employees increasingly are being conditioned to get and use contraceptive options via their health-care benefits, it is both appropriate and wise to make NFP instruction a covered benefit,” Brehany said.
The Franciscan Alliance is one of the Catholic plaintiffs that have filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate that would require faith-based employers to pay for coverage of contraception and abortion-inducing drugs.
Sister Jane Marie said that, though the alliance was inspired to create the NFP benefit by an employee suggestion, rather than its opposition to the HHS mandate, the benefit helps counter the pro-contraception position.
“The message [in offering this benefit] is strong,” she said.
This is not the first time the alliance has taken a strong stand on the issue of contraception. The alliance ended its association with the Catholic Health Association after CHA’s president, Sister Carol Keehan, a key supporter of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, initially embraced the Obama administration’s “accommodation” on the contraception mandate. Sister Carol has since backpedaled and offered her own ideas on how the administration plan could be made palatable to Catholic institutions.
“We pulled out when Sister Carol Keehan came out and said she represented so many Catholic hospitals and was supported by them. We said, ‘Well, you didn’t ask us,’” Sister Jane Marie said.
Franciscan Alliance CEO Kevin Leahy also blasted the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in February when the LCWR called the Obama administration’s proposed accommodation “acceptable” to religious groups.
“Undoubtedly, the president’s news conference was cleverly staged to divide and conquer,” Leahy was quoted as saying in a Catholic News Agency article, adding that LCWR had “taken his bait and is now trying to convince others that his ruse contains a thread of legitimate compromise — it does not.”
“I think that we have talked a lot about NFP,” Sister Jane Marie said. “We talk about it in our hospitals … and [as] part of our referrals. Now we provide it as a benefit, up to 80%.”
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.