Editorial: Dictating employee health coverage

  • Updated: March 5, 2012 - 11:37 AM

Congressional measures overreact to birth control policy.

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Common sense guided the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate last week as members narrowly defeated a measure that would have allowed an employer's religious beliefs to dictate the drugs or medical procedures covered by their employees' health insurance.

But the debate over this issue -- sparked by the Obama administration's recent decisions on prescription birth control coverage for Catholic hospitals and universities -- is far from over, especially as this year's election campaign ramps up.

Two bills in the Republican-controlled U.S. House are similar to the defeated Senate legislation, and proponents of those bills are vowing to fight on. One of those bills, the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act" authored by Nebraska Republican Rep.

Jeff Fortenberry, has 219 cosponsors -- over half the U.S. House. Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Chabot is pushing similar legislation.

There are also growing concerns that states may pursue constitutional amendments with similar aims. North Dakota already has one such measure -- called the "Religious Liberty Restoration Amendment" -- on its June primary ballot.

This breathtakingly broad measure would potentially protect an array of discriminatory practices on religious grounds. Saying that this measure would face serious constitutional challenges is an understatement.

No one should be duped by these initiatives' reassuring but dishonest names. Rather than safeguarding individuals' religious rights, these measures would empower those who want to impose their religious and moral beliefs on others.

The congressional legislation would specifically sanction this in a deeply personal and novel way: by allowing an employer's faith to shape and likely limit employees' health care access.

That's why even those concerned by the Obama administration's recent moves on birth control should reject ill-advised initiatives like Fortenberry's bill and the North Dakota ballot measure.

The Obama decision on birth-control coverage earlier this year was controversial and put the administration at loggerheads with the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, it did not not require anyone to take birth control. Nor did it require houses of worship to provide birth-control coverage.

Instead, the administration ensured that employees of religiously affiliated organizations -- many of whom do not share their employers' faith -- have the same access to birth control as do their private-sector counterparts elsewhere.

Furthermore, the Obama administration developed a work-around to address the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to birth control: religiously affiliated employers will not pay for coverage, but their insurers will.

Alarmingly, the various "religious freedom" initiatives under consideration do not limit exemptions to health care coverage requirements to religious organizations. Nor do they limit coverage exemptions to birth control.

Employers of all faiths would be free to ax essential medical procedures to which their chief executive objects. It's not hard to see how prenatal care for single pregnant women could be in jeopardy. So could HIV testing or vaccines for kids.

Workers ought to be especially wary of employer coverage objections in this age of skyrocketing health care costs. There's a financial incentive for employers to limit services. These measures would give them broad license to do so under the guise of religious liberty. The congressional measures contain few if any safeguards to prevent this from happening.

The White House decisions on birth control are an imperfect compromise, but represent a balanced solution to accommodate public health, equity and religious concerns.

The congressional measures are an overreaction to this difficult policy decision, and are an opportunity for political grandstanding during an election year. Those pushing these measures aren't seeking to protect religious freedom but to undermine it.

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  • FRANKEN'S VIEW

    "I have the right to choose my profession and my house and my doctor according to my own faith, but I don't have the right to choose yours.''

    Excerpt from U.S. Sen. AL FRANKEN'S floor speech last week. Franken and U.S. Sen. AMY KLOBUCHAR, both Democrats from Minnesota, voted against a Senate measure allowing employers to opt out of health care coverage requirements on moral grounds.

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