By Michelle Bauman
In coming up with its new “accommodation” on a controversial birth control mandate for religious employers, the Obama administration apparently turned to the Catholic Health Assocation (CHA), an organization that has previously sided with the administration and is in conflict with the views of the U.S. bishops on health care policy.
Hours before the Obama administration announced its supposedly “new” policy on the birth control mandate on Feb. 10, a White House official was already circulating a statement by the Catholic Health Association that praised the policy.
Darron Paul Monteiro, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, sent the statement in an email to multiple sources, including top Catholic Democrats and supporters of the administration.
Addressing the message to “friends,” Monteiro said: “I wanted to be sure you saw Sister Carol Keehan’s statement on the new regulation being proposed and finalized later this morning. This policy will accommodate important religious liberty concerns while protecting the health of women. The President will announce further details around noon today.”
In the enclosed statement, printed on the organization’s letterhead, CHA president, Sr. Carol Keehan said she was “very pleased” and “grateful.” She said the administration had “responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.”
CHA’s apparent involvement in the policy change came even though leading U.S. bishops have said publicly that the administration had made no effort to discuss the issue with them.
Neither the White House nor CHA responded to requests for comment on what role CHA may have played in the “new” policy.
Others, however, complained that the administration has not made any real change, despite President Obama’s claims in his Feb. 10 news conference.
Under what the President called an “accommodation,” religious employers would not have to directly buy contraceptives for their employees. But they would still be forced to purchase health care plans from insurance companies that offer them free of charge.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami called the President’s efforts “a smoke screen in which he has decided to kick the can down the road in the hope that the controversy will go away.”
He noted that the government is still requiring that employees of Catholic institutions receive free birth control and sterilizations in their health insurance coverage. He also said that the administration has not provided relief to dioceses and charities that are self-insured and do not rely on outside insurance companies.
“I don’t believe he’s offered us anything really substantial,” Archbishop Wenski told National Public Radio on Feb. 10. “We still have serious issues and these are issues of religious freedom.”
The President’s move did seem to have the effect of shaking up what had been a unified Catholic front against the contraception mandate.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling it “a first step in the right direction.”
And in a letter released on his website late Friday and intended to be read at parishes this weekend, Cardinal-Deignate Timothy Dolan of New York, head of the bishops’ conference, said the government “seems to have softened the mandates, and is open to working with us in further progress.”
But, he told Catholics, “We must study it carefully. … Stay tuned, as we may need your help again.”
Meanwhile, prominent lay Catholics have begun circulating a petition calling the new policy “unacceptable.”
The group included former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon; president of Catholic University of America, John Garvey; and Princeton University professor, Robert George.
They said the President’s “so-called ‘accommodation’ changes nothing of moral substance.”
“It is morally obtuse for the administration to suggest (as it does) that this is a meaningful accommodation of religious liberty because the insurance company will be the one to inform the employee that she is entitled to the embryo-destroying ‘five day after pill’ pursuant to the insurance contract purchased by the religious employer,” the petition reads.
“It does not matter who explains the terms of the policy purchased by the religiously affiliated or observant employer. What matters is what services the policy covers. … It is an insult to the intelligence of Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith and conscience to imagine that they will accept as assault on their religious liberty if only it is covered up by a cheap accounting trick.”
The announcement of the “new” policy followed protests from more than 150 bishops and others against the Obama administration’s earlier mandate – which would require virtually all employers to buy health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and early abortion drugs.
Amid the strong disapproval, the White House had said that it was holding “further discussions” with those that voiced concerns about the mandate.
However, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., head of the Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told CNA in a Feb. 8 statement that “no one from the Administration has approached the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops for discussions on this matter of a possible ‘compromise.’”
When asked on Feb. 8 about why the administration had not consulted the bishops during these conversations, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “Certain individuals may say they haven’t had a call, but others have been engaged in this conversation and will be engaged.”
The CHA was apparently among those “engaged.”
In her statement released by the White House ahead of its announcement, CHA head Sr. Keehan seemed to be looking beyond the controversy.
She said the controversy over the mandate has been “uncomfortable,” but that the hospital association was looking forward to “working with the administration and others to … extend comprehensive and quality health care to many who suffer today from the lack of it.”
During the debates over the comprehensive health care reform in 2010, Sr. Keehan and CHA broke from the U.S. bishops to support the legislation. The bishops had expressed concern over the legislation – under which the contraception mandate was later authorized – because they believed it may allow for funding of abortion.
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