Why the Little Sisters of the Poor Oppose the HHS Mandate

Oct. 7 issue feature: Little Sister of the Poor offers insight on HHS mandate and its consequences.

St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor
St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor (photo: Wikipedia)

As more lawsuits over the Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate are filed, many religious groups still remain temporarily exempt from the rule as they wait for answers.

Sister Constance Veit directs the publications office for the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of these groups waiting and hoping for relief from the HHS mandate. Between their 30 homes in the United States, the Little Sisters serve 2,500 elderly residents — enough to keep more than 300 sisters joyfully busy. The order is putting much effort into opposing this federal rule, and Sister Constance explains why.


How will the Little Sisters of the Poor be affected by the HHS mandate?

For the time being, we are not directly affected by the mandate. We have until the end of this year to provide certification that we meet the criteria for the one-year exemption currently in place. So, most likely, if nothing changes in the law, we will have to face this concretely Jan. 1, 2014.

Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan blogged about the HHS mandate and its impact on Catholic organizations and services. He is very clear about the costs of the mandate. For example, if we were to stop offering health insurance rather than comply with the mandate, we would have to pay a $2,000 penalty per employee. This penalty aside, it just does not seem right to us to stop providing health insurance to our employees.

If we chose to offer insurance without the objectionable services, we would honor our consciences, but we’d have to pay $100 per day per employee. As the cardinal figures it, for an organization with 50 employees, that would mean almost $2 million per year.

So if the mandate is still standing in 2014, all of our U.S. homes will be facing serious financial difficulties. To put this in perspective, we already have to make up at least half of our operating expenses through donations, because Medicaid reimbursements cover only about half of what it costs to care for the elderly in the way they deserve. So the potential fines or penalties we’re looking at just make it that much harder.


How will the burdens imposed by the HHS mandate affect your mission to serve the elderly?

As Little Sisters of the Poor, we do one thing — we offer the elderly poor a home where they are welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity and compassion until God calls them to himself. In all of the financial decisions we have to make, we try very hard to never negatively impact the care and services we provide, hoping the residents will not be directly affected in any way. But it will be difficult to go on with this extra financial burden.

At the same time, we believe that if we are faithful to our mission of caring for God’s poor, he will not let us down.

Our foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, used to say, "If God is with us, it will be accomplished. … If God fills the house, he will not abandon it." She had tremendous trust in Providence to provide for our needs. So, today, we are putting the confidence she taught us into practice and hoping and praying for a resolution to this issue.


What do you think should be done about the mandate?

Obviously, we stand with the U.S. bishops and so many others in advocating that the mandate be struck down, or that, in the very least, there be a viable exemption for freedom of conscience.


What actions have the Little Sisters of the Poor taken in order to combat the mandate?

At this point, we have not joined in any lawsuits. Our efforts have centered on praying and educating ourselves about the issue.

We issued our own statement back in March — which is highly unusual for us — because we felt that we wanted to support the bishops as much as possible.

As women religious who are grateful to be daughters of the Church, that is very important to us.

That’s why we issued a public statement and, later on, why we signed on to a joint letter sponsored by the bishops and the Lutheran Church.

During the Fortnight for Freedom, we had a lot of prayer initiatives in our homes, like daily Holy Hours with the elderly and speakers. And I was asked to speak about our mission and the need for religious liberty at a congressional reception sponsored by the bishops’ conference during the fortnight.

I have been a Little Sister for 25 years, and I have never seen our congregation so active on a public issue. So that is an indication of its importance. The only other time I have seen a response like this from our congregation was in the early 1990s, when euthanasia and assisted suicide were being debated in the European Parliament, and our superior general at that time took a public stand.

Normally, our lives are very hidden.


Do you think this violation of religious liberty will lead to others, particularly in end-of-life care?

This is our real concern. People have asked us what contraception has to do with us, since we care for the elderly.

But, for us, we are concerned about what could happen later — about the precedent for government intruding further into the health-care arena in ways that could be life-threatening to our residents. Institutional long-term care is already the most regulated segment of health care.

What we fear is that, if the federal government succeeds in this case, there are other areas where they could exert pressure or enact measures that could endanger our apostolate — particularly in end-of-life care and in the possible rationing of care to the elderly as a cost-saving measure.

Mary Frances Boyle

writes from St. Louis