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Officials decry rule making health plans cover contraception

Catholic-based institutions say they will face tough decisions if they must start covering contraception and other reproductive services in their health care insurance to employees.

'N.H. Catholic Charities would be forced to provide coverage for sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraception or choose to not provide health care coverage to employees, or tragically stop serving non-Catholics who make up a high percentage of the needy we serve,' said Nick Boudreau, spokesman for New Hampshire Catholic Charities.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this month it would include a narrow exemption for religious organizations that employ and serve those of the same faith. HHS said the exemption, part of President Barack Obama's health care law, would cover churches and might apply to primary and secondary religious schools, according to an HHS spokesman.

But it would not apply to most religious universities or hospitals because they generally do not employ or serve primarily people who share their religious tenets and do not have as their purpose the teaching of religious values, the spokesman said. Coverage must include morning-after pills and sterilization without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible.

Those church-affiliated organizations not qualifying for the exemption will be given until August 2013 to comply.

Catholic Medical Center spokesman Morgan Smith said the rule 'puts us in a predicament' with its 2,000 employees. 'It would force us to offer services that were against our ethical and religious directive or force us not to offer insurance altogether,' Smith said. 'Neither are acceptable options.'

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., lobbied Obama not to broaden the exemption when he visited Manchester last fall, according to Jonathan Lipman, her communications director.

'The health care law already includes a strong conscience clause to allow religious institutions, such as churches, to opt out of the requirement to offer insurance that covers birth control,' he said. 'Senator Shaheen objected to the expansion of that policy, as it would deny access to contraception to millions of additional women who do not share that religious belief.'

The three Republican members of Congress from New Hampshire opposed the limited exemption.

A 2011 poll from the Gutt-macher Institute, a nonpartisan sexual health research organization, showed 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholic women used birth control.

St. Anselm College's president, the Rev. Jonathan DeFelice, said he dislikes the decision.

'In a country and a state that values and respects individuals' right to exercise their religious beliefs and live according to their conscience's best lights, it is simply appalling to think that this mandate is anything other than an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience,' he said in a statement.

'If the Constitution grants, as it does, a priority of place to the freedom of religion, the administration should respect it and allow an exemption for the beliefs of Catholics and persons of other faiths. If it fails to do so, we need to urgently call on the members of Congress to rescind this unthinkable mandate.'

College officials weren't available to comment on what their health plan covers for employees.

At CMC, Smith said the health insurance doesn't 'cover sterilization or any abortive services or medications.' Birth control pills 'have medical purposes and are covered in our insurance,' Smith said. Birth control pills can be used to regulate menstrual cycles.

If a CMC employee within the CMC insurance network asks for birth control to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, the person will not be prescribed the medication. They will be covered by insurance if the doctor writes the prescription acting as part of his limited private practice but not 'as a representative of CMC,' Morgan said.

Kevin Donovan, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester, said health insurance for employees doesn't cover contraception, morning-after pills or sterilization.

Boudreau, from Catholic Charities, said this wasn't just a Catholic issue. 'Religious organizations of all faiths throughout New Hampshire will be put in the same sticky predicament,' he said. 'This failure to respect the values of pro-life Americans marks yet another slide down the slippery slope of religious intrusion by the current administration and state governments. As one of, if not the largest, social service organizations in America, the Catholic church's charitable mission, which serves all people regardless of their religious persuasion, will be put at extreme risk.'

First Congressional District Rep. Frank Guinta said he will continue to pursue overturning Obama's health care law.

'I do not support this action by the Department of Health and Human Services. This is yet another example of the federal government intruding into places where it doesn't belong,' Guinta said. 'In this case, Washington is forcing itself into doctors offices and health care delivery, just as the national health care reform law forces the government into your relationship with your family doctor. I'm fighting for its repeal, just as I'm fighting government over-regulation in all areas of everyday life.'

Second Congressional District Rep. Charles Bass said: 'Unfortunately, as President Obama's health care law continues to be implemented, the ability of employers and individuals to offer and obtain health care coverage that meets their needs is increasingly becoming less their decision and instead a decision dictated by the federal government. Employers are having to face tough choices when it comes to complying with the burdensome federal mandates proposed under the health care law. I voted to repeal the President's health care law and replace it with solutions that will continue to give employers and individuals the freedom to obtain coverage to meet their needs and not the wishes of bureaucrats in Washington.'

U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte said: 'Religious freedom is a foundational American right, enshrined in the Constitution. Government must not force religious organizations to compromise core elements of their faith. The President pledged to honor conscience protections in America's health care policies, and I will continue to push for those rights as I pursue my efforts to repeal and replace the health care law.'

Last October, Ayotte was one of 28 senators who wrote a letter to the HHS secretary expressing constitutional concerns regarding conscience rights as the health care law gets implemented.

Last August, Ayotte co-sponsored the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011, which would amend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to permit a health 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 (in the case of individual coverage) without penalty.


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