The Catholic Church reacted strongly Friday to a White House defense of new rules that will force many religious employers to provide contraception to their workers in government-mandated health insurance plans.
"The White House information about this is a combination of misleading and wrong," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said the bishops would "pursue every legal mandate available to them to bring an end to this mandate. That means legislation, litigation and public advocacy. All options are on the table."
The new regulations were announced last month by the Health and Human Services Department as part of an effort to guarantee that women receive free "preventive" healthcare services, including cervical cancer screening, breast pumps -- and contraception. They require employers to include those services in their employee health insurance plans by August.
Religious institutions can qualify for an exemption if the services violate their beliefs, but not if they employ large numbers of people who do not share those beliefs. Thus, a Catholic hospital or university that employs largely non-Catholic workers must provide free contraception in its employees' health insurance, even though birth control violates Catholic doctrine.
The announcement of the rule change provoked outrage from evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and other religious denominations. No voice was louder than that of the Catholic bishops, whose president, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, called the rules "un-American" and a "violation of conscience."
The White House responded that the new rules won't force anyone to buy contraceptives. Cecilia Munoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council, wrote: "Over half of Americans already live in the 28 states that require insurance companies [to] cover contraception." These include such large states as California and New York, she said.
The Catholic bishops shot back Friday, saying it was misleading to say that no one would be forced to "buy" contraceptives, because everyone who contributes to an insurance plan will be paying a portion of the subsidy that provides for free contraception. Plus, they said, Catholic institutions have gotten around state mandates in various ways, the most common being self-insurance. That won't be allowed under the new federal program.
"The state mandates are like a Maginot line," Picarello said. "They're a hard barrier, but you can just walk around them."
Neither Picarello nor representatives of Catholic healthcare associations could say how many employers were likely to be affected by the rule change. Some already offer contraception in their healthcare packages; Dignity Health, formerly known as Catholic Healthcare West, has offered contraception since 1997, according to spokeswoman Tricia Griffin.
"The federal requirements won't affect our policy," she said. (While long affiliated with the Catholic Church, Dignity recently cut those ties, but continues to operate Catholic hospitals.)
Alina Salganicoff, director of women's health policy for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, said she didn't know how many employers would be affected, but said a recent Kaiser survey in California found that 6% of all employers and 11% of large employers reported that their health plans did not cover contraception. She said the Obama plan does "grandfather in" existing health plans, so religious institutions that currently don't provide contraceptives won't be required to change unless they switch to a new health insurance plan.