WASHINGTON, D.C. — Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has asked President Obama to temporarily exempt religious institutions from crippling fines if their insurance plans exclude sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraceptives.
Archbishop Kurtz also asked the president to consider that the U.S. Supreme Court already has agreed to hear two cases related to the mandate created by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At least 90 cases have been brought to federal courts by individuals and institutions objecting to the imposition of the HHS mandate. Most of the decisions to date have favored those bringing suit.
Archbishop Kurtz’s request comes as the administration has offered exemptions to numerous people and organizations having difficulty in implementing the ACA. Individuals who faced penalties for not meeting deadlines for enrollment have had deadlines extended. Businesses with 50 or more employees will not be fined if they drop or otherwise do not offer health insurance at all for 2014. After 2014, if these businesses do not offer a health insurance plan, they face a fine of $2,000 a year per employee.
Meanwhile, beginning as early as January 1, 2014, organizations such as church-sponsored universities, hospitals, and social services, face a fine of $100 per day ($36,500 per year) per employee if they provide health coverage that does not include contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs, and sterilization.
“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,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
“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,” he added. “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.”
The entire December 31, 2013 letter follows.
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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 $2,000 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.
Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.
Archbishop of Louisville
President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops