Self-insuring faith groups exempt from contraceptive order

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Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday that self-insuring religious employers will be exempted from a contraception coverage mandate, clearing up a question raised by Catholic groups and other opponents who continued protesting the rule this week.

“Yes, I think that we will apply it to both,” Mrs. Sebelius told reporters, saying a new rule the administration offered last week to quell criticism will apply both to religious employers who buy plans for their workers and to those who self-insure.

“Whether it’s an insured plan or self-insured plan, that the employer who has a religious objection doesn’t have to directly offer or pay for contraception,” she said as reporters gathered around her Wednesday after a hearing on President Obama’s proposed budget before the Senate Finance Committee.

“Self-insuring” — in which an employer hires an insurance company to administer a plan but pays its employees’ claims itself — is an approach to health coverage that has grown more popular over the last few decades. Three in five covered American workers are in a plan funded by their employer, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, Mrs. Sebelius did not assuage all the concerns raised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, other religious leaders and religious-freedom activists.

Since the White House released its new proposal Friday, critics also have charged that religious insurance companies wouldn’t be exempted under the rule — a claim Mrs. Sebelius didn’t contradict when asked about it at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Religious insurance companies don’t really design the plans they sell based on their own religious tenets,” she said.

Mrs. Sebelius also acknowledged, under questioning by Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, that she didn’t consult with the Catholic bishops before releasing the newest version of the rule, which expanded the religious-freedom exemption to include not just churches but also religious employers such as Catholic hospitals, charities and schools. Mr. Obama said Friday that insurers would have to cover contraception costs themselves.

“I did not speak to the Catholic bishops,” Mrs. Sebelius said, adding, “I really don’t know,” when Mr. Hatch asked whether Mr. Obama himself conferred with the bishops.

Mr. Hatch also pressed her on a letter he and other senators had sent asking whether HHS had analyzed the legality of the mandate — to which Mrs. Sebelius said she would respond as rapidly as possible — and sought from her information on which groups the White House consulted about the compromise proposal released Friday.

“I know numerous conversations were had with religious leaders, with employers, with insurers with stakeholders,” Mrs. Sebelius said. “I really have no idea when you ask if anybody in the administration talks to anyone.”

The hearing came a day after Senate Republicans pushed for a provision that would allow employers to opt out of covering any health service that violates their moral beliefs — even if they aren’t religious institutions — angering Democrats who said it could allow employers to refuse to cover virtually any type of health service.

A group of House Republicans, joined by Illinois Democrat Daniel Lipinski, gathered Wednesday to call for action on a similar provision in their chamber, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican. Like the Senate version, it would excuse any employer from offering a service contrary to its religious or moral beliefs.

“This most perniciously affects faith-based employers who are the backstop of compassionate care in this country for the poorest and the most vulnerable and they’re left with a choice now,” Mr. Fortenberry said. “Follow your deeply held beliefs and convictions or obey President Obama. That’s a false choice.”

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