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Hackett reflects on his three years as U.S. ambassador to Vatican

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is gearing up to try retirement for the second time. The retired president of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid agency, is leaving his ambassadorial post three years and three months after presenting his credentials to Pope Francis. Read more »

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Washington Letter — Theologians’ brief in HHS mandate case might lead to compromise ruling

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court cases, with their multiple friend-of-the-court briefs, leave extensive paper trails behind them and although these briefs might get lost in the shuffle, occasionally some stand out.

Women religious demonstrate March 23 against the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. A brief filed by Catholic theologians could impact the court's efforts to seek a compromise. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

Women religious demonstrate March 23 against the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. A brief filed by Catholic theologians could impact the court’s efforts to seek a compromise. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

In Zubik v. Burwell, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement, more than 30 briefs were filed by religious, political and health groups weighing in both for and against the mandate that most religious and other employers must cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients through employer-provided health insurance even if they are morally opposed to such coverage.

One of these briefs, submitted by a group of 50 Catholic theologians and ethicists, may have been instrumental in prompting the court to issue its March 29 order for new written arguments by both sides.

Legal analyst Lyle Denniston, who writes for scotusblog.com, a blog on the Supreme Court, said if the justices succeed in finding a way to make the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirement “work in a way that more or less satisfies everyone,” the group of theologians “should take at least some of the credit.”

He said the court very rarely asks for more information after oral arguments and the request was so unusual “it may not have any parallels in the court’s history” except for the call for expanded constitutional arguments when the court was reviewing the school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.

The 45-page brief from the theologians is steeped in Catholic moral theology and hinges on the notion that religious employers object to the mandate and the Obama administration’s “work-around” — that allows them to acknowledge their opposition to the requirement and arrange for a third party to provide the contraception coverage — primarily because it makes them complicit in sin.

This objection, spelled out in the theologians’ brief, is not something that can be compromised, thus pointing to another way to make the Affordable Care Act’s requirement work, which the court seems to be reaching for in its order.

The court proposed that religious employers would not be asked to fill out a form or send a letter stating their objection to contraception coverage but would simply do nothing and the insurance companies, taking the cue from the employer’s stance, would provide the necessary contraception coverage.

Religious groups reacted favorably to this idea, stating in a new brief that this would use the least restrictive means for the government to protect women’s access to contraceptives while ensuring that religious employers are not complicit in what they regard as sinful.

Complicity in sin is not often the topic du jour in court hearings, but it came up during the March 23 oral arguments of Zubik. Paul Clement of the Washington-based Bancroft firm, who was one of two lawyers representing the plaintiffs, argued that religious freedom was at stake in the federal government’s accommodation because even though the contraceptive coverage would be supplied by a third party, the religious employers would still be complicit in providing something that goes against their beliefs.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Beaton Verrilli Jr., in defending the federal government, argued that the government’s accommodation was the least restrictive approach, and he also did not think the plaintiffs, by using third parties, were complicit in what they disagreed with, even though they have repeatedly stated this.

For all the arguments that the religious groups should simply fill out the paperwork to remove themselves from something they disagree with on moral grounds, the theologians’ brief pointed out that it’s not that simple.

The brief notes that “compliance with the mandate” by filling out a form or submitting notice to the Health and Human Services Department would involve “either formal cooperation in wrongdoing, or impermissible material cooperation in serious wrongdoing.”

They gave the historic example cited by Catholic moral theologians about a servant ordered by his master to hold a ladder against a house so the master may “enter a window to commit a forbidden action, such as burglary or adultery.”

“Under Catholic moral theology, such formal cooperation is impermissible, even when committed under duress, and regardless of whether the master actually succeeds in perpetrating the wicked action,” the brief notes.

It also links this analogy to the current case saying the contraceptive mandate places the religious objectors in a situation akin to the servant who obeys a command to participate in the master’s scheme and it likens the master to the government “which is attempting to implement a program designed to promote the use of contraceptives and abortifacients” which the brief says is “plainly impermissible under Catholic doctrine.”

If the justices find a way to reach the type of Solomonic compromise many say they are looking for with the contraception requirement, religious groups would have to enter new contracts for new health plans, and the government would have to write new Affordable Care Act regulations, which will certainly take some time, but can be accomplished.

If the justices are unable to find a compromise and they reach a split decision, the contraceptive mandate for religious groups will be interpreted differently in different areas of the country.

 

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Religious groups back Supreme Court’s idea on contraceptive coverage

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WASHINGTON — The religious nonprofits challenging their participation in the contraceptive mandate under the Affordable Care Act agreed with a U.S. Supreme Court proposal that such coverage be provided through an alternative health care plan without involving the religious employers in a legal brief filed with the court.

The brief, filed April 12 in the case of Zubik v. Burwell, said that as long as any alternative plan offering contraceptive health coverage is “truly independent” of the petitioners and their health insurance plans, then they would no longer object to the ACA’s goal of providing access to free birth control to women.

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23 after attending oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23 after attending oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Any such an arrangement would require a separate insurance policy, a separate enrollment process, a separate insurance card and a separate payment source and be offered to employees through a separate communication, thus protecting the petitioners’ objections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the contraceptive mandate, the brief said.

“We said yes to the court. There certainly are ways that people can get contraceptive coverage without using the religious organization providing health plans to do it,” Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said during a press call April 13.

“The point of the case is not to say the government cannot get people to have contraceptives. … The claim has always been ‘I just can’t be involved. You can do whatever you want, just leave me out of it,’” he added.

“Our argument is if the government is willing to do something separate, that would be fine with us,” he told reporters.

Health insurance programs already exist in states across the country that offer separate contraceptive and abortion coverage under the ACA to meet employer concerns, Rienzi said.

Zubik v. Burwell is a consolidated case involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests for Life, the Pennsylvania dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, the Archdiocese of Washington, and other Catholic and faith-based entities. The groups are challenging the ACA’s mandate that most religious and other employers must cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients through employer-provided health insurance even if they are morally opposed to such coverage.

Briefs from the religious groups and the federal government were filed in response to a March 29 order from the eight Supreme Court justices outlining the procedures objecting religious employers must follow if they do not want to provide insurance coverage of contraceptives. It suggested that the groups could contract a third party to provide health insurance for their employees but they would need to inform the insurance company that they did not want the plan to include contraceptive coverage that they find objectionable.

The government’s brief argued that it wanted to keep the contraceptive mandate intact, but offered that it would go along with the court’s suggestion despite the possibility that it might not close the door on future legal challenges.

The court’s alternative, the government said, would work only in cases in which a religious employer uses an outside insurance company for health care coverage. The government also said that the religious groups had never indicated throughout years of litigation that they would accept what the justices ultimately suggested.

The brief reiterated that requiring a religious employer to send its objection to contraceptive coverage in writing is a “minimally intrusive process.”

However, it is that “work-around” of filing written paperwork with the government stating objections to such coverage that led to the lawsuits from the religious groups, which maintain that even complying with the so-called accommodation still involves them in providing coverage that violates their deeply held beliefs.

The court’s March 29 order said that insurance companies could “separately notify petitioners’ employees that the insurance company will provide cost-free contraceptive coverage, and that such coverage is not paid for by petitioners and is not provided through petitioners’ health plan.”

With the plan, the objecting religious employers would not have to submit a form to the government or their insurance companies about the coverage.

Both parties have until April 20 to file responses to the briefs. The court is expected to rule on the case near the end of its term in June.

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Supreme Court hears arguments in HHS contraceptive mandate case

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — During oral arguments March 23 at the Supreme Court, attorneys on both sides of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement examined how the mandate either violates or strikes a balance with religious freedom.

Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington near the U.S. Supreme Court March 23 in Washington. The high court heard oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS /Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington near the U.S. Supreme Court March 23 in Washington. The high court heard oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS /Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Lawyers representing the seven groups of plaintiffs said the federal government’s so-called accommodation for religious employers to arrange for a third party to provide contraceptive coverage in health plans was inconsistent because the government already had been able to provide churches an exemption from the requirement.

Paul Clement of the Washington-based Bancroft firm, who was one of two lawyers representing the plaintiffs, argued that religious freedom was at stake in the federal government’s accommodation because even though the contraceptive coverage would be supplied by a third party, the religious employers would still be complicit in providing something that goes against their beliefs.

“The problem is we have to fill out a form, and the consequence of us filling out that form is we will be treated very differently from those other religious employers” that are exempt, he said.

U.S. Solicitor General Donald Beaton Verrilli Jr., in defending the federal government, argued that the government’s accommodation struck the necessary balance required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

RFRA says that if a law restricts the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the Constitution, there must be a compelling government interest to do so and it must not place an unreasonable burden on the religious exercise.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stressed that “no one doubts for a moment the sincerity” of the religious employers that object to providing contraceptive health care coverage, but she and other justices indicated that such a belief goes up against the compelling interest of the government’s plan to provide health coverage for women, and the accommodation sought to find that balance.

Clement argued that an accommodation isn’t “immune from RFRA analysis” and that the problem is giving an accommodation to some religious groups, but not all.

Noel Francisco of Jones Day, arguing on behalf of the dioceses who are plaintiffs, also noted that if the government is willing to address the contraceptive coverage in some ways for groups that meet the accommodation standard, than they should look to other ways for other religious groups to be exempt as well.

There was a fair amount of back and forth on where the government should draw the line and if it draws it one place, should it draw it again, or should it never have drawn the line in the first place?

Verrilli said the government’s line has not always been perfect, but it did try to try to strike a balance. There is an objective limit to what RFRA can do, he added.

He also said the government’s solution was the least restrictive approach, and he also did not think the plaintiffs, by using third parties, were complicit in what they disagreed with, even though they have stated again and again they feel that way.

As the discussion centered on health exchanges, grandfathered clauses and exemptions, Chief Justice John Roberts summed up the argument with Verrilli as the government’s desire for a “seamless” health care package versus the religious objections of the plaintiffs.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests for Life and the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania, and the Archdiocese of Washington are among numerous plaintiffs around the country consolidated into Zubik v. Burwell.

The case is named for Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik and Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the current secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, most religious and other employers are required to cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients through employer-provided health insurance. Refusal to comply subjects nonexempt employers to heavy fines.

A very narrow exemption for churches and religious orders was permitted from the start, but several Catholic and other religious institutions and ministries that were not exempted, such as colleges, hospitals and charitable providers, said they could not participate in providing contraceptives without violating their beliefs.

The Obama administration then created its accommodation, or “work-around,” that allows objecting employers to acknowledge their opposition to the contraceptive coverage by notifying HHS in a letter. This triggers an arrangement for a third party to provide the coverage. These employers still found the “opt-out” provision objectionable.

Five years later, several circuit courts of appeal ruled that religious entities, such as the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, were not substantially burdened by the opt-out procedures. Only one such court, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a September ruling, accepted the nonprofits’ argument that complying with the opt-out provision violates their religious beliefs.

In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, the Supreme Court relied on RFRA to rule in favor of two family-owned private businesses, Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties, who argued that providing contraceptives in health care coverage to employees was contrary to the owners’ Christian beliefs.

 

Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Crowd outside Supreme Court rallies against federal contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — In the end, the women religious decided it would be good to sing after all.

That wasn’t on the agenda for the sunny 90-minute rally in front of the Supreme Court March 23 in support of the plaintiffs in Zubik v. Burwell. But it had a calming effect, so it seemed like the right thing to do.

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23 after attending oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, mother provincial of the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23 after attending oral arguments in the Zubik v. Burwell contraceptive mandate case. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

There were several spontaneous renditions of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” “God Bless America” and “God Bless the USA” from the Little Sisters of the Poor and groups of Dominican and Carmelite sisters.

At the end of the rally, Mother Regina Marie Gorman of the Carmelite Sisters of Los Angeles, who delivered the closing prayer, decided, with a big smile, that it would be apt for all the Catholics to chant the Marian antiphon “Salve Regina,” traditionally sung after evening prayers.

It was a serene conclusion to an orderly rally punctuated with chants of “Let them serve!” as the court heard oral arguments in the case brought by several Catholic and other faith-based entities against the federal government’s requirement that most employers, including religious employers, cover contraceptives for their workers.

The Denver-based Little Sisters, who operate nursing homes for the elderly poor, and 36 other groups are contesting the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the case has an uncertain future with the possibility of a 4-4 court deadlock, which means the rulings of the circuit courts, all but one of which have gone against the plaintiffs, will be upheld.

The Department of Health and Human Services has offered an “accommodation,” also known as a “work-around,” that allows objecting employers to acknowledge their opposition to contraceptive coverage by notifying HHS in a letter. This allows a third party to provide the coverage. The Little Sisters and other plaintiffs object to that, calling it a burden on their free exercise of religion, because they are still involved in allowing coverage they find objectionable.

“Today the Little Sisters make their last stand,” said Mother Mary Assumpta Long of the Dominican Sisters of Mary in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Filling out a piece of paper is not the issue. Complicity is wrong and it is wrong in itself, and the government cannot make this otherwise.”

“The Supreme Court,” she continued, “is no the arbiter of sacred Scriptures.”

“Our request is not uniquely Catholic or religious. It’s American,” said Elise Italiano, executive director of communications for The Catholic University of America, another plaintiff.

On March 2, a rally of more than 3,000 participants surrounded and attempted to drown out a pro-life rally of about 200 during oral arguments on a Texas abortion law. This time, the proportions were reversed.

A competing rally organized by the National Women’s Law Center, the American Humanist Association and Catholics for Choice, among other groups, had many fewer participants than the several hundred who turned out in support of the Little Sisters and the other plaintiffs, including Oklahoma Wesleyan University, East Texas Baptist University, Southern Nazarene University and Geneva College, a Presbyterian institution, and the Archdiocese of Washington, the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie, Pennsylvania and Priests for Life.

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Supreme Court will hear appeals in Catholic cases against contraceptive mandate — updated

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court justices said Nov. 6 they will hear seven pending appeals in lawsuits brought by several Catholic and other faith-based entities against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate.

The court will hear appeals from groups in Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and the District of Columbia.

Members of the Little Sisters of the Poor attend the 2014 celebration of the third Fortnight for Freedom Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The Supreme Court agreed Nov. 6 to hear appeals filed by the Little Sisters and other groups against the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review)

Members of the Little Sisters of the Poor attend the 2014 celebration of the third Fortnight for Freedom Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The Supreme Court agreed Nov. 6 to hear appeals filed by the Little Sisters and other groups against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review)

Among the plaintiffs are the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses, Priests for Life, Southern Nazarene University and Texas Baptist University.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most employers, including religious ones, are required to cover employees’ artificial birth control, sterilization and abortifacients, even if employers are morally opposed to such coverage.

In all the cases to be argued before the high court in March, appellate courts in various jurisdictions sided with the Obama administration. The rulings said the religious entities’ freedom of religion was not burdened by having to comply with the mandate as they have argued, because the federal government has in place an accommodation for a third party to provide the contested coverage.

But the religious groups object to that notification, saying they still would be complicit in supporting practices they oppose. While their appeals worked their way to the high court, the government has not been able to force the groups to comply with the mandate or face daily fines for noncompliance.

The Archdiocese of Washington said it “is heartened to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the D.C. Circuit’s flawed ruling in our challenge to the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate, together with the other challenges pending before the court.”

“A particular concern for the archdiocese is the government’s treatment of Catholic educational and charitable ministries as if they are somehow less religious than houses of worship, and therefore less deserving of the right to operate in accord with the church’s teachings,” it said in a statement. “The archdiocese is hopeful that the court will vindicate our religious freedom, and the freedom of Catholic ministries also seeking to practice their faith freely, as guaranteed under the law.

Only those religious employers that meet narrow criteria set by the Obama administration are exempt from the mandate. Houses of worship are exempt, for example, but most Catholic and other religious employers are not.

Nonexempt religious employers can opt out of providing the coverage using what the administration calls an accommodation, or “work around.” They must notify Health and Human Services in writing of their religious objections. Then HHS or the Department of Labor government in turn tells insurers and third-party administrators that they must cover the services at no charge to employees.

In an afternoon telephone news conference, a spokesman for the Becket Fund, whose lawyers represent the Little Sisters of the Poor, said the Obama administration had “strenuously argued” that the high court not take the Little Sisters of the Poor case.

The government “argued hard and the court granted it anyway,” said Mark Rienzi, Becket’s senior counsel. “So the government will have to explain why they fought hard to make the Little Sisters cover contraceptives.”

Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, was quoted as saying the Obama administration is certain “the policy that we have in place balances the need for millions of Americans to have access to birth control while also protecting the right of religious freedom that is protected in our Constitution.”

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik in a statement said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “goes to the very heart of our concerns.” The 1993 law was enacted “to respect the teachings of all religious bodies and the practices of individual believers,” he noted.

“The insurance mandate, which is one small provision of the Affordable Care Act, would require us to facilitate access to contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients contrary to our teaching,” he said.

Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania, in his statement said he was pleased his diocese and the others “will have our day in court.”

“Religious liberty protects the right of each of us to pursue the truth, to embrace it, and to shape our lives around it — all without government interference,” Bishop Persico said. “We are hopeful the court will uphold religious liberty, one of the essential pillars upon which our country has thrived for centuries.”

In its petition to the court, written by U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli Jr., the government said that houses of worship are different than church organizations. Churches themselves should be exempt because their employees are likely to share their employers’ religious beliefs, the government argued, while faith-based universities, charities and other organizations have more employees who do not share the beliefs of their employers and so the mandate should be enforced for those employers.

Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, which represents the Priests for Life, called it “great news” that organization’s appeal will be heard along with the others.

On Nov. 9, Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, announced a special prayer campaign for the Supreme Court to reverse the HHS mandate. The organization’s prayer website, PrayerCampaign.org, has a link to special prayers written for the campaign.

“Victory for us and the other six cases means victory for every believer,” Father Pavone said in a statement. “It is not the government that decides what does or does not contradict our faith and our conscience. It is the believer, in union with his or her church, who determines that. This is the essence of religious freedom.”

The cases the court accepted are: Zubik v. Burwell; Priests for Life v. Department of HHS; Roman Catholic Archbishop v. Burwell; Texas Baptist University v. Burwell; Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell; Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell; and Geneva College v. Burwell. The court is expected to refer to the cases collectively as Zubik v. Burwell. Sylvia Mathews Burwell is the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Health care subsidy ruling hailed by many, but criticism continues

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WASHINGTON (CNS) — The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling that upheld federal subsidies to keep health insurance premiums affordable regardless of whether the state or federal government runs the exchange system was welcomed by the president as well as by several religious organizations and stockholders in health care systems.

The June 25 decision in King v. Burwell said that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” and upheld the federal tax breaks that have made it possible for an estimated 6.4 million people in the 34 affected states to be able to afford health insurance because of subsidies averaging $272 a month. Read more »

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Supreme Court upholds health care subsidies in states with federal exchanges

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Writing that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court June 25 upheld tax subsidies for participants in health care exchanges run by the federal government in states that refused to create them.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts disentangled what he said was “more than a few examples of inartful drafting” in how the 2010 law was written that contributed to the interpretation that federal subsidies for people with lower income should only be available to residents of states that created their own health care exchanges. Read more »

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5th Circuit says HHS accommodation on mandate not a burden on religion

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The religious rights of faith-based entities — including the dioceses of Fort Worth and Beaumont, Texas, and the University of Dallas — are not substantially burdened by the process to receive an accommodation from the federal government to avoid participating in a health care mandate for contraceptive coverage, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled June 22.       Read more »

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Obama thanks Catholic Health Association for support of Affordable Care Act

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Telling the Catholic Health Association that he was there to say thank you, President Barack Obama June 9 recalled the struggles of passing the Affordable Care Act and ticked off the successes since it became law five years ago.

“Every one of these stories touched me,” Obama said of those without affordable health care before the ACA took effect, referencing an emergency room visit when his daughter Sasha had meningitis. He said he had good insurance at the time but wondered about the families in the ER who did not.

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, greets U.S. President Barack Obama June 9 in Washington during CHA's annual assembly. (CNS photo/Bob Roller

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, greets U.S. President Barack Obama June 9 in Washington during CHA’s 100th anniversary assembly. (CNS photo/Bob Roller

“There is something deeply cynical” about attempts to roll back health care that works, Obama said of ongoing Republican-led efforts to kill the program.

Obama acknowledged that without the support of CHA president and CEO Sister Carol Keehan and its members, the legislation would not have passed. He said he told Sister Carol, a Daughter of Charity, backstage, “I love you” and meant it.

“Her dedication to doing God’s work here on earth, her commitment to serving ‘the least of these,’ her steadiness, her strength, her steadfast voice have been an inspiration to me,” Obama said. “We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act done had it not been for her. I want to thank the entire Catholic Health Association for the incredible work you do.”

The speech at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington was part of the 100th anniversary observances for the CHA, the leadership organization representing more than 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states.

Sister Carol told Catholic News Service after the event that getting the president to address the Catholic Health Assembly, as the CHA conference is known, was “the icing on the cake” of special events planned for the 100th anniversary year. The assembly attended by more than 1,000 people opened with a Mass at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception across town, with Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl and Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the current and retired archbishops of Washington, respectively, and other bishops. “The shrine was packed,” she said. “It was as beautiful a Mass as I’ve seen.”

She said she personally handed off the invitation to Obama during a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough several months ago. Sister Carol has worked closely with the White House staff over the years on a variety of issues.

Sister Carol told CNS that the current system of health care “is not everything we need by a long shot, but it is an incredible step forward.”

In addition to a majority of Republicans in Congress, some Catholic organizations also opposed key elements of the ACA. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has challenged in court the law’s provisions for requiring that insurance plans include coverage for artificial birth control, sterilization and drugs that lead to abortions.

In his remarks, Obama referenced his first job after college, working as a community organizer in a program funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, operating out of Holy Rosary Church on Chicago’s South Side.

“The work was hard, and there were times where it was dispiriting,” he said. “We had plenty of setbacks. There were times where I felt like quitting, where I wondered if the path I’d chosen was too hard.”

“But despite these challenges, I saw how kindness and compassion and faith can change the arc of people’s lives,” he continued. “And I saw the power of faith, a shared belief that every human being, made in the image of God, deserves to live in dignity; that all children, no matter who they are or where they come from or how much money they were born into, ought to have the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential; that we are all called, in the words of His Holiness Pope Francis, ‘to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.’”

At the time, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin headed the Archdiocese of Chicago and Obama was struck by his example, he said. “He understood that part of that commitment, part of that commitment to the dignity of every human being also meant that we had to care about the health of every human being. And he articulated that, and the church articulated that, as we moved at the state level in the Illinois legislature, once I was elected there later on in life, to advance the proposition that health care is not a privilege, it is a right.”

That is the core of the CHA mission, Obama said, going on to thank the members for their role in helping reform the nation’s health care system.

He and Sister Carol both acknowledged that the ACA is far from perfect.

“Like any serious attempt at change, there were disruptions in the rollout, there are policies we can put in place to make health care work even better,” he said. He said the system needs reforms to how health care is delivered, it needs protection for the coverage of the 16 million people who signed up under the ACA; more states must expand Medicaid for the working poor and improvements are needed in quality of care while bringing down costs.

 

 

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