Lawmakers and politicians scrambled Monday to respond to a growing furor over the Obama administration's decision to require no-cost contraceptive insurance coverage — even in policies offered by religious employers.
Over the weekend hundreds of thousands of Catholics, including many in the Kansas City area, heard church leaders denounce the plan revealed in late January by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor.
Catholic leaders complained that the rule would force them to subsidize medical procedures to which they morally object.
“Unless this rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled to either violate our consciences or drop health care coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so),” according to a letter from Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
He and other church prelates asked that the message be read from pulpits over the weekend.
“We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law,” Naumann’s letter stated.
A similar letter from Bishop Robert Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph urged congregants to call Congress about the issue. Religious organizations have until August 2013 to comply.
“We need the vigorous help of the lay faithful to reverse this action which affects the Church, business owners, and all employees needing health care benefits,” Finn’s letter stated.
The administration’s proposal would not directly require religious groups to provide contraceptives. Rather, it requires insurers — even those covering workers at religious organizations such as colleges and hospitals — to pay for contraceptives without co-pays or deductibles.
But in a column published Monday in USA Today, Sebelius defended the contraceptive coverage requirement as a “balance” between the rights of religious employers and the health care needs of their workers.
“The public health case for making sure insurance covers contraception is clear,” the Democrat wrote.
Republicans continued their attack on the proposal, calling it a threat to religious liberty.
“The Obama administration’s recent decision is offensive to Americans’ religious rights and freedoms,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican.
Some Democrats also oppose the measure. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin called the mandate “un-American” in a letter Friday.
But Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who’s Catholic, said the requirement could protect women’s health.
“This is an emotional, difficult subject. It’s always one that’s difficult,” McCaskill said. “But if you really believe that reducing abortions are important in this country, which I do, then it doesn’t work to keep putting up barriers to women getting birth control.”
Political observers such as Burdett Loomis, a KU professor of political science who has worked with Sebelius, called the decision “bad policy and bad politics.”
“Some women voters may perceive this in favorable terms, but the pushback from Catholics is so great, and almost across the board,” Loomis noted. “That’s part of the base the Democratic Party needs.”
Despite the angry response from Catholics and other religious groups, the administration appears reluctant to reconsider its decision. Churches are exempt, White House officials argued. And doctors aren’t required to prescribe contraceptives, and no one is required to buy them.
“We obviously believe this is constitutional,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said last week. “But the point of the decision (was)we want to make sure that women have access to good health care, no matter where they work, and that all women who want access to contraceptives are able to get them without paying a co-pay every time they go to the pharmacy.”
Criticism of the plan has escalated on conservative and religious websites.
“The Obama administration’s abortifacient and contraception mandate is appalling, but I cannot claim to be surprised by it,” wrote Robert George on a Catholic legal blog. “In fact, I would have been surprised — indeed stunned — had the administration done anything significant to honor or protect the rights of Catholics and others on whose consciences the mandate will impose.”
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum also hammered the decision during a speech Friday in Lee’s Summit. But he also blamed Catholic bishops for not fighting harder against the entire health care reform law.
“I told the Catholic bishops years ago when they were promoting Obamacare, be careful what you wish for,” Santorum said. “They got what they deserved.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the final version of the Affordable Care Act, largely because it was dissatisfied with its contraception and abortion-related language.
Blunt and others said they will try to overturn the regulation. Last year, Blunt introduced a measure that would allow any health insurance plan “to decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to the religious beliefs of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan, or the purchaser or beneficiary, without penalty.”
Blunt’s bill remains in committee, as does a companion bill in the House. U.S. Reps. Sam Graves and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, and U.S. Rep Lynn Jenkins of Kansas — all Republicans — are co-sponsors of the bill.
The general requirement that insurers cover contraception without co-pays for secular employers has met less resistance. Public opinion polls show the public is split on the issue, as it is on many parts of the health care law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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