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ZERO HOUR: Bishops Ask Obama for "Temporary" Break from HHS Mandate, Fearing Massive Fines

One day before the deadline for compliance with the mandate, Archbishop Kurtz, the USCCB president asks for a break, noting recent exemptions and rule changes to Obamacare, and the huge penalties Catholic employers will be forced to pay.

BY Joan Desmond

| Posted 12/31/13 at 2:55 PM

 

For the past couple of months, news headlines have noted various 11th-hour rule changes for Obamacare, but one group has yet to win a reprieve: religious employers who have consistently opposed the contraception mandate for almost two years, filing legal challenges and drawing political attacks from partisan groups that dismissed their claims as a "war on women."

Today, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, just released his Dec.31 letter to President Obama that requests "temporary" relief from compliance with the contraception mandate while legal challenges make their way through the courts  Some time after Jan. 2014, every non-exempt Catholic employer must roll out their new health plan. At that time, they will be required to provide services that violate church teaching or refuse and thus trigger penalties totalling "$36,500 a year per employee."

In the wake of lenient rulechanges for various groups adversely affected by Obamacare provisions, Kurtz rightly asks why religous employers who object to the mandate on moral grounds have not also earned a reprieve. He writes:

The result is a regulation that harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith.  The Administration’s flexibility in implementing the ACA has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our “First Freedom” under the Constitution.

Here is Archbishop Kurtz's letter to President Obama:

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the Catholic bishops of the United States, I wish you and your family every blessing in this New Year.  The bishops pray regularly that you and our other public officials will have renewed strength to fulfill the duties of your office with integrity, justice and compassion. 

In this regard, your Administration recently relaxed the rules governing individual health plans under the Affordable Care Act, so Americans whose current plans have been canceled may claim a “hardship exemption” from some requirements.  This is the latest in a series of actions to advance the ACA’s goal of maximizing health coverage, while minimizing hardships to Americans as the Act is implemented.  For example, the ACA exempts small employers from the mandate to offer health coverage, and you have suspended this mandate for all employers through 2014. 

One category of Americans, however, has been left out in the cold: Those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply with the HHS regulation requiring coverage of sterilization and contraceptives. This mandate includes drugs and devices that can interfere with the survival of a human being in the earliest stage of development, burdening religious convictions on abortion as well as contraception. To date, at least 90 lawsuits representing almost 300 plaintiffs have been filed to challenge this mandate, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of these cases in its current Term. Most lower courts addressing the issue have found merit in the plaintiffs’ claims and granted at least temporary relief, while some courts have denied relief or have yet to act.  

Many Catholic and other nonprofit institutions caring for those in need through education, health care and other services are not exempt from the contraceptive mandate.  For reasons articulated by the courts, the Administration’s final rule of July 2013 does not alleviate the burden on their religious freedom.

Please consider, then, the result of your Administration’s current policies.  In the coming year, no employer, large or small, will be required to offer a health plan at all. Employers face no penalty in the coming year (and only $2000 per employee afterwards) for canceling coverage against their employees’ wishes, compelling them to seek individual coverage on the open market.  But an employer who chooses, out of charity and good will, to provide and fully subsidize an excellent health plan for employees – but excludes sterilization or any contraceptive drug or device – faces crippling fines of up to $100 a day or $36,500 a year per employee.  In effect, the government seems to be telling employees that they are better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan that does not cover contraceptives.  This is hard to reconcile with an Act whose purpose is to bring us closer to universal coverage. 

The result is a regulation that harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith.  The Administration’s flexibility in implementing the ACA has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our “First Freedom” under the Constitution. 

I understand that legal issues in these cases will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, many religious employers have not obtained the temporary relief they need in time to avoid being subjected to the HHS mandate beginning January 1.  I urge you, therefore, to consider offering temporary relief from this mandate, as you have for so many other individuals and groups facing other requirements under the ACA. 

Thank you for considering this urgent plea. Again, be assured of my continued prayers in the coming year as you seek to serve the American people.       

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.
Archbishop of Louisville
President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops