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  • Jun
  • 28

Enforcement of HHS mandate delayed five months, bishops to study new ruling

Posted By June 28, 2013 | 4:08 pm | Featured Article #1

By Patricia O’Connell
CFP Correspondent

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services today issued a 110-page ruling on its contraceptive health care mandate that was to go into effect Aug. 1 for some nonprofit entities. It moves the date of implementation to Jan 1, 2014.
The HHS mandate requires that almost all employers, even those with moral objections to contraception, abortion and sterilization, provide employees contraceptives, including those that cause abortion and sterilization, free of charge as part of services for women under the new health care law.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is analyzing the  ruling, according to a press release from the USCCB.
Cardinal Dolan expressed gratitude for the five-month extension on implementing the complex proposal.
“We have received and started to review the 110-page final rule on the HHS mandate,” Cardinal Dolan said.
“We appreciate the extension of the effective date by five months, which is readily apparent in the rule,” he said. “The remainder of the rule is long and complex. It will require more careful analysis.  We will provide a fuller statement when that analysis is complete.”
With the original Aug. 1 deadline looming, Catholics around the country were praying for relief from the HHS mandate.
“We cannot compromise the integrity of our moral and social teachings,” said Bishop McManus said earlier this week, before the new ruling. “The Church cannot become complicit. The Church simply cannot do that.”
In the original order, the fine for non-compliance could be as high as $100 per employee, per day. Opting out carries a penalty as well. Fines would also be incurred for larger employers that do not offer health coverage.
The mandate is part of President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Although it went into effect last summer, religious non-profits were given a year-long grace period, which has now been extended another five months.
What this means for Catholic hospitals, charities and educational facilities remains to be seen. A number of lawsuits, filed by archdioceses and dioceses, are still being heard in federal court.
Bishop McManus. who recently returned from the annual spring USCCB conference in San Diego, said the matter was on the agenda, but discussed in executive session.
Negative reactions to the mandate have been overwhelming, according to the bishop, who also serves on the USCCB Pro-Life Committee. As of last week, he was holding out hope a solution could be hammered out.
Bishop McManus said the bishops, led by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, are lobbying at a national level, to arrive at a point where Catholic employers do not have to violate their religious conscience, and are still free to carry out their missions.
Although the mandate includes a religious exemption, it is very narrowly defined. It excludes organizations not formed for the sole purpose of employing and/or serving their membership. Many Church-related institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and schools, minister to people from other faiths.
“The government simply has no right to create a situation where the Church would have to consider closing down its institutions because they are not allowed to be run by the social and moral teachings of the Church,” stated Bishop McManus.
The nation’s bishops are addressing the issue as a unified body, as much as possible, Bishop McManus explained.
“Each bishop would be very wise to attend to the work the (USCCB) conference is giving to us,” he said, adding that Church law also stipulates each diocese is independent, and extenuating circumstances may call for a different approach.
The potential for this to greatly undermine our religious freedom is real, he stressed. “I’m very worried,” he said adding that the government doesn’t seem to understand these concerns.
One possible scenario, he confirmed, could be the closing of some Catholic institutions.
“That would be the worst case,” he said. “Please God, that we won’t come to that.”
He urged the faithful to pray, to study the issue and to get involved by contacting their representatives.
The Becket Fund, based in Washington, DC., represents many of the groups that have filed lawsuits. Attorney Adele Keim said these suits have been filed on behalf of both Catholic and evangelical employers. They include, among others, EWTN, Ave Maria College and Belmont Abbey College.
Ms. Keim said The Becket Fund’s mission is to defend religious freedom for people of all faiths.
She said the Obama administration has shown “cavalier disregard” for religious liberty.
This puts religious employers in a precarious situation, she noted. “Each organization is going to have to make tough decisions on its own,” she stated.
A ruling came down today in favor of one of the organizations the fund represents. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., based in Oklahoma City, will not have to pay possible fines of $1.3 million a day for not complying with some terms of the mandate, while its case winds through the courts. The company has 500 stores in more than 40 states and 13,000 full-time employees.
The evangelical Christian family who owns Hobby Lobby is not personally opposed to contraceptives, according to other publicized statements, but does have religious objections to abortifacient drugs. The firm was given reprieve from having to offer health insurance that subsidizes this coverage.”
“Today’s ruling was the most decisive victory yet against the abortion-pill mandate. The number of religious freedom victories against the mandate continues to mount, sending the clearest signal possible to the Obama administration that no employer, no matter where he or she works, should be forced to choose between violating his or her conscience and paying a fine” said Ashley McGuire, Senior Fellow with the Catholic Association, in a prepared statement. We hope that President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius will heed the court and give people of faith all over this country relief from this unjust mandate.”
The Catholic Association is a US-based group that seeks to publicly defend Catholic values.
Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, said his group filed a lawsuit a little over a year ago.
“The fact of the matter is the courts remain our best recourse,” he said. “The more lawsuits on this, the better.”
“One of the things the whole mandate is doing is that it’s forcing us to fight,” he added.
Father Pavone said, unless justice prevails, there’s a real possibility some Catholic institutions may be forced to shut their doors. “I think so,” he said. “This administration, for whatever reason, they simply don’t see things our way.”
“In some ways it’s a mind game,” he said. “It’s a test of wills.”
He said the ruling presents a dilemma for privately run Catholic businesses, as well as for Church-based institutions. This could also be the start of increased persecution of Christians, noted Father Pavone.
“Yes, that’s certainly something that history has seen before,” adding that we shouldn’t “underestimate” the potential for this to happen.
Father Pavone said the current HHS mandate is simply a list of “preventative services” included under the Affordable Care Act. The list was approved in 2012, two years after the health care act became law.
“What prevents them tomorrow or next year from adding additional things to the list?,” Father Pavone wondered.
He said it was impossible for Church leaders to accept these conditions. “There’s no way that they or their institutions will comply with that mandate,” he stated. “What will that non-compliance look like in practice?”
He went on to say that American Catholics are facing an attack on their religious liberties that is unprecedented. “Power is being given to particular individuals to do all things that are not within the text of the law,” he stated.
“We have to be vigilant, we have to be ready for battle, we have to be continually asking questions,” he added.
Franceso Cesareo, PhD., president of Assumption College, said his institution will not violate Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life.
He bought the college another year of safe harbor by renewing its health insurance policy early, so coverage for its 500 employees extends into the summer of 2014.
“We are in a fortunate situation as we saw the deadline approaching a year ago,” he explained.
President Cesareo considered filing a lawsuit, but he was urged not to because of the liberal views held in the Massachusetts federal court system. If things didn’t go the right way, it could weaken cases being heard in other parts of the country.
“We have submitted to the HHS our objections and the reasons,” he added.
President Cesareo, however, believes some sort of deal will be struck that allows Catholic institutions to live out the Gospel message, while complying with the law.
“I can’t imagine that institutions of higher education would close” he said. “It would be such a massive disruption.”
“It is a freedom of religion issue and they just don’t seem to get that,” he concluded, noting the proposed exemption doesn’t apply to Assumption, or other Catholic organizations.“It is precisely because of our religious commitment that we are serving all people, because that is what Christ calls us to do.”
Dennis Irish, spokesperson for Worcester’s St. Vincent Medical Center said his facility, which employs 2,300 full-time, part-time and contract workers, will seek counsel from Church leaders.
“The hospital is committed to adhering to the Catholic mission and is legally required to abide by the rules and regulations of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and those issued by the federal government,” Mr. Irish stated. “In matters of conflict between the two, hospital administration consults with the Bishop of Worcester and utilizes recognized and trained moralists and canonists.”
Father Stephen Gemme, pastor of Saint Bernadette parish and elementary school in Northborough, said he’ll be taking his direction from the USCCB. “The first thing I would do is look to the bishops for leadership,” he stated. “You follow the leadership of the bishops, the leadership of the Church.”
He said this direction would then flow to the local diocese.
“We’re all together,” which, he noted, is “the gift of being part of the Church.”
“The Holy Spirit guides the bishops, the bishops are heirs to the Apostles,” he added. “When you do that you’re blessed, because it gives glory to God.”
Some local Catholic-owned businesses are also watching to see how this unfolds. Vic Melfa is founder and president of The Training Associates, based in Westborough.
The company, which finds temporary contract work for information technology specialists, has nearly 100 employees.
Spokesperson Annette Parent said Mr. Melfa is closely watching the outcome and “he’s praying on it.”