The Most Rev. Richard Stika, bishop of Knoxville, issued a statement read at masses Sunday in response to the recent ruling by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department that requires most health insurance plans to cover birth control services for women
“Let us not be deceived,” the bishop’s letter to parishioners stated, “What we are witnessing, as Pope Benedict XVI stated, is the drastic shift from ‘religious freedom to a mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.’ This shift is but a thinly disguised way of silencing the moral witness of Catholics in protecting the sanctity and dignity of every human life, in defending marriage and family from attacks upon it, and from sowing the seeds of our faith through our works of mercy. It is an attempt to put a bushel basket over the light of our Catholic faith and to keep it a private matter to be expressed only inside a church, and even then with limits.”
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement Jan. 20, announcing the final rule on preventive health services.
She stated that in August 2011, DHS issued an interim final rule requiring most health insurance plans to cover preventive services for women including recommended contraceptive services without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. The interim rule allowed certain nonprofit religious employers that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraceptive services.
However, the HHS statement said the final rule ensures women with health insurance coverage will have access to the full range of the Institute of Medicine’s recommended preventive services.
Beginning Aug. 1, most new and renewed health plans will be required to cover the full range of the Institute of Medicine’s recommended preventive services, including all FDA-approved forms of contraception.
“After evaluating comments, we have decided to add an additional element to the final rule. Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year, until Aug. 1, 2013, to comply with the new law,” Sebelius stated. “Employers wishing to take advantage of the additional year must certify that they qualify for the delayed implementation. This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule.”
Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement the rule forces American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care.
“It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty. ... The government should not force Americans to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs.”
Stika said the decision the Obama Administration calls ‘fair and balanced’ mandates the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to force almost all employers, including Catholic employers, to include sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception in their employees’ health coverage. Additionally, almost all health insurers will be forced to include these ‘services’ in their health policies. And regardless of a person’s conscience, almost all individuals will be forced to buy that coverage as a part of this administration’s policies.
“This ruling will have dire consequences upon Catholics nationwide and the millions who are ministered to and served through our Catholic schools, higher education institutions, hospitals and charities,” Stika said. “It is these that bear the name ‘Catholic,’ founded as expressions of our Christian witness as disciples of Christ, that the administration now deems to be secular in nature and subject to their manipulation. In so ruling, Catholics are compelled to either violate their consciences or to drop health coverage for employees and to suffer the penalties for doing so.”
Sebelius said HHS intends to require employers who do not offer coverage of contraceptive services to provide notice to employees, which will also state that contraceptive services are available at sites such as community health centers, public clinics, and hospitals with income-based support.
“We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns,” she said. “Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing.
“This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty. I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” Sebelius’ statement continued. “The administration remains fully committed to its partnerships with faith-based organizations, which promote healthy communities and serve the common good. And this final rule will have no impact on the protections that existing conscience laws and regulations give to health care providers.”
Dolan stated the federal government has never forced individuals and organizations to buy a product in violation of their consciences.
“This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights,” Dolan said. “Let your elected leaders know that you want religious liberty and rights of conscience restored and that you want the administration’s contraceptive mandate rescinded.”