The health care law's contraceptive mandate officially kicks in Wednesday, meaning most businesses will have to make sure their insurance plans cover birth control — including those run by owners who personally believe birth control is immoral.
Fifty-eight lawsuits have been filed in federal courts, including four for-profit companies and a coalition of 2,100 Catholic executives who are responsible for more than 2 million employees. All of those employers will have to begin paying for contraception coverage the next time their policies renew.
"This is not something you want to be doing, suing your own federal government, but we simply have no choice," said John Hunt, executive director of Legatus, a Catholic organization for business leaders. "If it's a choice between being a faithful Catholic and a faithful citizen, we're Catholic first."
Contraception has been a major flashpoints of the health care fight since the administration decided it was a mandatory preventive service insurers must cover without charging a co-pay. The list includes mammograms, breast-feeding support and domestic violence screening for women, and depression, diabetes and colorectal cancer screenings for all adults, among other services.
President Obama offered an accommodation to religiously affiliated employers, such as Catholic universities and hospitals, who have another year to prepare and are allowed to have employees obtain contraceptive coverage directly from insurers. But that accommodation doesn't apply to private businesses.
Many Republicans have attacked the requirement as an infringement on religious conscience, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he wanted to try to have his chamber vote on a GOP proposal to repeal the entire law.
Democrats, though, are reluctant to hold that vote, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius joined them on Capitol Hill Tuesday to tout the new preventive benefits.
Like members of Legatus, the four businesses suing over the mandate also are owned by practicing Catholics who follow the church's teachings against the use of artificial contraception. Three of them are large enough that they must provide affordable coverage or risk paying fines under the health care law.
"We're very disappointed that the accommodation wasn't afforded to us, but I think ultimately there's a whole bunch of people — business owners and other organizations — whether it's Aug. 1 or a year from Aug. 1 — that want to be free to practice their faith," said Andy Newland, a co-owner of Hercules Industries, Inc., a Denver-based heating and air conditioning company.
Colorado is one of 28 states that require most insurance plans to cover contraception, but Hercules has been able to duck the requirement by self-insuring — a way other employers with religious convictions are able to get around state insurance laws.
The company obtained an injunction from a federal court last week, allowing it to delay complying with the law until three months after the case is decided. Without the court order, it would have had to start paying for contraception coverage for its 265 full-time employees beginning Nov. 1, when its plan begins a new year.
"This is allowing us to continue doing what we've been doing," Mr. Newland said.
Other companies may not have that much time before the contraception mandate kicks in for them.
The health plan offered by O'Brien Industry Holdings, a company in St. Louis that processes ceramic metals, is scheduled to renew on Jan. 1, but the company's attorneys said they'll seek a similar injunction.
Michigan-based Weingartz Supply Co., which supplies outdoor power equipment and is represented by the Thomas More Law Center, hasn't decided what route to take when its plan also expires in six months. Attorney Erin Mersino said the company could face $300,000 in penalties if it stops offering coverage — along with possibly losing employees — but that complying with the mandate also wouldn't be easy.
"If the company owner chooses to comply and violate his religious beliefs, they would need to change health plans, go through bid and negotiation processes, approve a contract, then seek a third-party administrator and stop-loss provider, and then have at least a one-month enrollment process for employees," Ms. Mersino said.
Seneca Hardwood Lumber Co. in Pennsylvania is the only one of the four business with fewer than 50 workers and isn't subject to the coverage mandate, but doesn't want to drop the coverage it already offers.
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