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Catholic groups settle in lawsuit against HHS contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Dozens of Catholic groups that challenged the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act have reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, they announced late Oct. 16.

The groups, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the Pennsylvania dioceses of Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Erie, were represented by the Cleveland-based law firm Jones Day.

Activists participate in a rally in late September to protect the Affordable Care Act outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (CNS photo/Aaron P. Bernstein, Reuters)

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl wrote an Oct. 16 letter to archdiocesan priests saying the “binding agreement” ends the litigation challenging the Health and Human Services’ mandate and provides a “level of assurance as we move into the future.”

The Washington archdiocese was one of dozens of groups challenging the mandate, which went to the Supreme Court last year in the consolidated case of Zubik v. Burwell. Although it was most often described as the Little Sisters of the Poor fighting against the federal government, the case before the court involved seven plaintiffs and each of these combined cases represented a group of schools, churches or church-sponsored organizations.

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik, whom the case is named for, said he was grateful for the settlement, which he described as an “agreement with the government that secures and reaffirms the constitutional right of religious freedom.”

In an Oct. 17 statement, the bishop said the diocese’s five-year-long challenge to the mandate “has been resolved successfully” allowing Catholic Charities in the diocese and other religious organizations of different denominations to be exempt from “insurance coverage or practices that are morally unacceptable.”

He said the settlement follows the recent release of new federal regulations that provide religious organizations with a full exemption from covering items that violate their core beliefs.

On Oct. 6, the Trump administration issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate to include religious employers who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.

Cardinal Wuerl said in his letter to priests that the new guidelines and regulations were extremely helpful but that the “settlement of the Zubik litigation adds a leavening of certainty moving forward. It removes doubt where it might otherwise exist as it closes those cases.”

“The settlement adds additional assurances,” he added, “that we will not be subject to enforcement or imposition of similar regulations imposing such morally unacceptable mandates moving forward.”

The cardinal thanked the Jones Day law firm for its legal representation in the case and thanked Catholics for their prayers and support for the petitioners in the long legal fight.

Thomas Aquinas College of Santa Paula, Calif., one of the groups that fell under the Washington archdiocese’s challenge of the HHS mandate to the Supreme Court, similarly thanked the law firm Jones Day for representing the school pro bono.

The school’s president, Michael McLean, said in an Oct. 16 statement that as part of the settlement, the government will pay a portion of the legal costs and fees incurred by the law firm.

He said the college welcomed the broadening of the exemption from the HHS mandate by the Trump administration in early October but he similarly said the settlement of the case provides “something even better: a permanent exemption from an onerous federal directive and any similar future directive that would require us to compromise our fundamental beliefs.”

“This is an extraordinary outcome for Thomas Aquinas College and for the cause of religious freedom,” he added.

The school’s statement said according to the terms of the settlement, the government concedes that the contraceptive mandate “imposes a substantial burden” on the plaintiffs’ exercise of religion and “cannot be legally enforced” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The contraceptive mandate, in place since 2012, required all employers to provide contraceptive coverage in their employer insurance. Last year when opposition to this mandate came to the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously returned the case to the lower courts with instructions to determine if contraceptive insurance coverage could be obtained by employees through their insurance companies without directly involving religious employers who object to paying for such coverage.

Erie Bishop Lawrence T. Persico, representing one of the groups that challenged the mandate, said in an Oct. 17 statement that it has been “difficult for people to understand that this lawsuit was not just about contraceptives.

“The real issue,” he said, “was the government attempting to narrow the definition of freedom of religion, using the HHS mandate to exempt only a small subset of religious employers. Churches were declared exempt, but their hospitals, Catholic Charities agencies, schools, and universities were not.”

The bishop said he was pleased with the settlement particularly because the church continues to assert that all of its ministries “are inextricably tied to the practice of our faith.”

     

Mark Zimmermann, editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese, contributed to this report.

      – – –

      Follow Carol Zimmermann on Twitter:@carolmaczim.

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Bishops: ACA repeal bill puts ‘insufferable burden’ on the poor

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The latest version of a Republican measure in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act must be amended to protect poor and vulnerable Americans, said the chairmen of four U.S. bishops’ committees.

The U.S. flag flies in front of the Capitol dome Sept. 12 in Washington. The latest version of a Republican measure in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act must be amended to protect poor and vulnerable Americans, said the chairmen of four U.S. bishops’ committees.(CNS/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

“As you consider the Graham-Cassidy legislation as a possible replacement for the Affordable Care Act, we urge you to think of the harm that will be caused to poor and vulnerable people and amend the legislation while retaining its positive features,” the bishops said in a letter to all senators released Sept. 22.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana have co-sponsored the legislation.

“Without significant improvement, this bill does not meet the moral criteria for health care reform outlined in our previous letters and must be changed,” they said. That criteria includes respect for life and dignity; honoring conscience rights; access for all; and a high-quality plan that is affordable and comprehensive.

The bishops criticized the measure’s Medicaid “per capita cap” because it puts an “insufferable burden” on poor and vulnerable Americans. They did praise the bill for correcting “a serious flaw” in the ACA by ensuring “no federal funds are used for abortion or go to plans that cover it.” They called on senators to amend the bill to address it flaws but retain the pro-life provisions.

The Graham-Cassidy bill would repeal the ACA and replace it with block grants for the states to spend as they see fit. The block grants’ size, though, would shrink over time and disappear altogether in 2027. The Senate is working under a Sept. 30 deadline to pass the bill.

The letter was signed by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities; Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Migration.

“The Graham-Cassidy bill includes a Medicaid ‘per capita cap’ that was part of previous bills, which have been rejected,” the bishops wrote. “The Medicaid caps will fundamentally restructure this vital program, which supports the medical needs of those most in need. Over time, these modifications will result in deep funding cuts and lost coverage for millions of people.

“The Senate should only proceed with a full report concerning just how many people will be impacted,” they said. “Our nation must not attempt to address its fiscal concerns by placing an insufferable health care burden on the backs of the poor.”

The bishops said the proposal does “correct a serious flaw” flaw in the ACA by making sure “no federal funds are used for abortion or go to plans that cover it.”

“This improvement is praiseworthy, and it is essential that any improved final bill retain these key provisions which would finally address grave moral problems in our current health care system,” they said. “We also applaud that Graham-Cassidy redirects funds from organizations that provide abortion.”

But they took the bill to task for giving block grants to states “in place of premium tax credits, cost-sharing subsidies and the Medicaid expansion,” saying that arrangement will only harm the poor.

“While flexibility can be good at times, these block grants will result in billions of dollars in reductions for those in health care poverty,” they said. “States already face significant deficits each budget cycle, and these block grants mean dollars intended for low income individuals and families will suddenly face competition from many other state priorities.”

The country “can ill afford to put access to health care for those most in need in jeopardy this way” because, the bishops continued, “the costs to our communities, including public and private organizations at all levels, will be too high.”

“Decisions about the health of our citizens, a concern fundamental to each of us, should not be made in haste simply because an artificial deadline looms,” they said.

“The far-reaching implications of Congress’ actions are too significant for that kind of governance,” the committee chairmen said.

They told senators that “the common good should call you to come together in a bi-partisan way to pass thoughtful legislation that addresses the life, conscience, immigrant access, market stability and affordability problems that now exist.”

“Your constituents, especially those with no voice of their own in this process, deserve no less,” they concluded.

Earlier this year, as Senate Republicans drafted and debated an ACA repeal measure, the U.S. bishops in letters and statements repeatedly urged Congress to craft a bill meeting the moral criteria of respect for life and dignity; honoring conscience rights; access for all; and a high-quality plan that is affordable and comprehensive.

When the Senate failed to get enough votes to pass what was being called a “skinny” repeal to remove parts of the Affordable Care Act in the early hours of July 28, Bishop Dewane in a statement said the “task of reforming the health care system still remains.”

The nation’s health care system under the ACA “is not financially sustainable” and “lacks full Hyde protections and conscience rights,” he said at the time. He also noted the health care system “is inaccessible to many immigrants,” he said in a statement.

The U.S. bishops have advocated for universal and affordable health care for decades and they supported the general goal of the Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010, but the bishops ultimately opposed the law because it expanded the federal role in abortion and failed to expand health care protections to immigrants.

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Catholic group presses Trump to end contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Frustrated by federal court inaction and the Department of Justice blocking the way, the Catholic Benefits Association has called on President Trump to intervene directly in the legal battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.

“This is a problem that’s easily remedied,” Douglas C. Wilson, CBA’s chief executive officer, told Catholic News Service. “It was created by Obama’s regulatory administration and it can be undone by the Trump administration just as easily.”

President Donald Trump prepares to sign his Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

In an Aug. 18 letter, Wilson asked the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to stop defending the mandate in court and agree to a permanent injunction protecting the plaintiffs in all cases. The letter also urged the White House to adopt, unchanged, a proposed HHS regulation, submitted in May, to exempt employers with conscientious objections from having to comply with such mandates.

The mandate requires employers to provide coverage for contraception and abortifacients, opposed by Catholic moral teaching, under penalty of fines.

Wilson said he has not yet received anything other than a pro forma White House acknowledgement of the letter.

Asked about it during an Aug. 24 news conference, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, “I’m not sure if (Trump is) aware of the complaints or any specific places where that’s being ignored.”

On May 4, Trump, in a Rose Garden ceremony, announced an executive order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”

“Your long ordeal will soon be over,” he announced to religious groups that included the Little Sisters of the Poor, whose Supreme Court victory in 2016 was widely considered the beginning of the end of the contraception mandate. “We are ending the attacks on your religious freedom.”

The CBA, based in Castle Rock, Colorado, and representing more than 1,000 Catholic health care providers, has been the largest single plaintiff challenging the mandate. The association first sued HHS in March 2014. CBA members “are facing $6 billion in accumulated penalties should this fail to be resolved,” Wilson said.

In July, the CBA filed a motion with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver asking for affirmation of its 2014 injunction blocking implementation of the mandate. But on July 31, Justice Department lawyers opposed the motion and asked that the appeal be kept alive.

“They cited only some unspecified efforts to reach a regulatory resolution outside of the judicial process, but we have no guarantee that such a resolution will be either timely or sufficient,” Wilson’s letter argued.

HHS Secretary Tom Price “believes that the Little Sisters, 80 Catholic bishops, and hundreds of other religious employers should win their lawsuits. The president likewise has promised the religious employers victory. But for whatever reason, the Justice Department keeps defending Obama’s contraception mandate in court,” Eric Kniffin, a CBA lawyer said.

Wilson added, “It seems that this issue never crosses the finish line.”

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Senate bills fail but need to reform health care remains, says bishop

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WASHINGTON — After the Senate Republicans failed to get enough votes to pass a “skinny” repeal to remove parts of the Affordable Care Act in the early hours of July 28, a U.S. bishop said the “task of reforming the health care system still remains.”

The U.S. Capitol is seen prior to an all-night round of health care votes on Capitol Hill July 27 in Washington. The Senate rejected legislation to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. (CNS photo/Aaron P. Bernstein,

The U.S. Capitol is seen prior to an all-night round of health care votes on Capitol Hill July 27 in Washington. The Senate rejected legislation to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. (CNS photo/Aaron P. Bernstein,

The nation’s system under the Affordable Care Act “is not financially sustainable” and “lacks full Hyde protections and conscience rights,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

It also “is inaccessible to many immigrants,” he said in a statement.

“Inaction will result in harm for too many people,” Bishop Dewane added.

The failed repeal bill was a pared-down version of earlier bills. It would have repealed both the individual mandate that says all Americans must buy health insurance or pay a penalty and the requirement all large employers offer health insurance to their workers. It would have expanded health savings accounts, delayed a tax on medical devices and increased funding for community health centers.

The vote was 51 against, and 49 in favor. All the Democrats voted “no.” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, joined two other GOP senators in rejecting the measure, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, had pushed the latest version forward in hopes it would be passed and lead to a conference with the House, which May 4 passed the American Health Care Act to replace the ACA, to hammer out a compromise measure.

The Senate vote is over, but the need to reform health care remains, said Bishop Dewane, who urged the two political parties to get past their divisions and work for “the common good.”

“A moment has opened for Congress, and indeed all Americans, to set aside party and personal political interest and pursue the common good of our nation and its people, especially the most vulnerable,” he said.

He laid out four action items he said are essential to any bill to be considered in the future:

  • “Protect the Medicaid program from changes that would harm millions of struggling Americans.”
  • “Protect the safety net from any other changes that harm the poor, immigrants, or any others at the margins.”
  • “Address the real probability of collapsing insurance markets and the corresponding loss of genuine affordability for those with limited means.”
  • Provide full Hyde Amendment provisions and much-needed conscience protections.”

 “The greatness of our country is not measured by the well-being of the powerful but how we have cared for the ‘least of these,'” Bishop Dewane said. “Congress can and should pass health care legislation that lives up to that greatness.”

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Backgrounder: Getting a health care bill through Congress fraught with difficulties

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — When the vice president has to cast a vote to break a tie in the Senate on whether to debate U.S. health care policy, let alone revise it, as Mike Pence did July 25, it is obvious that passing legislation to repeal, and/or replace, and/or reform the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is going to be a heavy lift in Congress. Read more »

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U.S. bishops’ committee chair sees little improvement in Senate’s revised health bill

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Republicans’ latest effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act is “unacceptable” and shows little improvement over the lawmakers’ first attempt to reform the federal health care law, said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee.

“On an initial read, we do not see enough improvement to change our assessment that the proposal is unacceptable,” said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

The U.S. Capitol in Washington. The Senate Republicans’ latest effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act is “unacceptable” and shows little improvement over the lawmakers’ first attempt to reform the federal health care law, said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The U.S. Capitol in Washington. The Senate Republicans’ latest effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act is “unacceptable” and shows little improvement over the lawmakers’ first attempt to reform the federal health care law, said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

“We recognize the incremental improvement in funding the fight against opioid addiction, for instance, but more is needed to honor our moral obligation to our brothers and sisters living in poverty and to ensure that essential protections for the unborn remain in the bill,” he said July 13.

Bishop Dewane said the USCCB “is reviewing carefully the health care bill introduced by Senate leadership earlier today.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, introduced the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act. The measure needs 50 votes to pass.

In his July 13 statement, Bishop Dewane referred back to his June 27 letter to senators that said any health care reform bill must uphold several moral principles: affordability; access for all; respect for life; and protection of conscience rights. The bishops also have stressed the need for U.S. health care policy “to improve real access” to health care for immigrants.

The U.S. Senate must reject any health care reform bill that will “fundamentally alter the social safety net for millions of people,” he said in the June letter. “Removing vital coverage for those most in need is not the answer to our nation’s health care problems, and doing so will not help us build toward the common good.”

Bishop Dewane also said in that letter the U.S. bishops valued the language in the earlier Senate bill that recognizes “abortion is not health care,” and that it at least partially succeeded on conscience rights. But he said it had to be strengthened to fully apply “the long-standing and widely supported Hyde Amendment protections. Full Hyde protections are essential and must be included in the final bill.”

The June 27 letter reiterated points the U.S. bishops made in reaction to a June 22 draft of the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Bishop Dewane had warned that the bill’s “restructuring of Medicaid will adversely impact those already in deep health poverty. At a time when tax cuts that would seem to benefit the wealthy and increases in other areas of federal spending, such as defense, are being contemplated, placing a ‘per capita cap’ on medical coverage for the poor is unconscionable.”

The revised GOP bill introduced July 13 retains big cuts in Medicaid funding and in subsidies for low- and moderate-income people. It also scales back the federal portion that covers the cost of Medicaid, leaving states to pay more and find new funding and/or reduce benefits and limit who can enroll in the program.

The measure provides for $45 billion in grants to help states combat abuse of opioids and other drugs; the first version allowed $2 billion. It also would let people use money from their tax-exempt health savings accounts to pay for insurance premiums.

In addition, people would be allowed to buy just a catastrophic health insurance policy to cover serious accidents and diseases, like cancer. Insurance companies also would be allowed to sell policies that do not include all the coverage mandated by the ACA, such as preventive care and mental and substance abuse treatment, as long as they sell one policy that includes those requirements.

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U.S. bishops focused on ‘ensuring fundamental right’ to health care

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Catholic News Service

INDIANAPOLIS — As the country awaits the U.S. Senate’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in the coming weeks, the U.S. bishops made it clear June 15 during their annual spring assembly in Indianapolis that their efforts are focused on “ensuring the fundamental right of medical care” for all people.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also reinforced its stand that the American Health Care Act passed by the U.S. House May 4 needs major reform, to provide quality health care for the voiceless, especially children, the elderly, the poor, immigrants and the seriously ill.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, center, speaks June 14 during the opening of the bishops' annual spring assembly in Indianapolis. Also pictured is Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, center, speaks June 14 during the opening of the bishops’ annual spring assembly in Indianapolis. Also pictured is Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president. (CNS photo/Sean Gallagher, The Criterion)

“We find ourselves in a time marked by a deep sense of urgency and gravity,” said Bishop George L. Thomas of Helena, Montana, in his remarks to his fellow bishops. “Within two weeks, we may see a federal budgetary action with potentially catastrophic effects on the lives of our people, most especially children and the elderly, the seriously ill, the immigrant and our nation’s working poor.”

Referring to the House bill, known as AHCA, and its plan to “eliminate $880 billion from Medicaid over the next decade,” Bishop Thomas continued, “If left unchallenged or unmodified, this budget will destabilize our own Catholic health care apostolates, take food from the mouths of school-aged children and the homebound, and deny already scarce medical resources to the nation’s neediest in every state across the land.”

His passion growing as he spoke, Bishop Thomas concluded, “These are our people, our communities, our parishioners and members of our own beloved families. As a conference of bishops, we have the responsibility to read the signs of the times, to shine the light of the Gospel and Catholic social doctrine on this proposed budget.”

Bishop Thomas’ remarks drew appreciative applause from the U.S. bishops on the second day of their June 14-15 meeting.

He was the first bishop to speak following a report on health care reform by Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

In his report, Bishop Dewane also focused on how the U.S. Senate will soon turn its attention to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

“The Catholic Church remains committed to ensuring the fundamental right to medical care, a right which is in keeping with the God-given dignity of every person,” Bishop Dewane said. “Both the lives of the unborn and adequate concern for those most in need anchor the USCCB’s messages to Congress at this critical time.”

He told his fellow bishops that the USCCB has been in constant contact with members of Congress since the House passed its version of a health care plan. Noting that the USCCB sent a letter to U.S. senators June 1, Bishop Dewane said, “It called on the Senate to strip away harmful promises of the AHCA or start anew with a better bill.”

The letter also provided recommendations and guiding principles for the senators as they craft their health care plan, starting with respect for life.

“No health care reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion,” Bishop Dewane said about that priority in his remarks.

He also stressed that all people should have access to comprehensive quality health care and that the cost of health care be affordable, keeping low-income families in consideration. Any health care plan should also respect the conscience rights of people, from patients to providers.

“Those without a strong voice in the process must not bear the brunt of the attempts to cut costs,” Bishop Dewane said. “The bishops stand ready to work with Congress to address problems with the Affordable Care Act in ways that protect the most vulnerable among us.

“This is an important moment for the country and for the church. The teaching we bring to bear on questions of health and health care do not fit neatly or really, in many cases, not at all, into the single party platforms,” he continued. “Because of this, the church has a unique voice. The committee’’s work on this issue will remain active and diligent for the sake of those most in need at all stages of life.”

Following Bishop Dewane’s report, other bishops joined Bishop Thomas in sharing their reactions with their fellow bishops.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago said, “The issue is about the human person. We need to make sure that we put forward that our position is that the state has a responsibility in creating solidarity within a country of caring for those most in need.”

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego reflected on the comparison between the Affordable Care Act and the proposed plan that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed to replace it.

“Health care is a fundamental human right, and government is its ultimate guarantor,” Bishop McElroy said. “The Affordable Care Act for all its flaws was a movement in favor of comprehensive health care. This is a movement away.”

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, encouraged his fellow bishops to remember people who live in rural areas as they seek a comprehensive health care plan.

“Medical care in the rural parts is in a very delicate state in terms of getting enough doctors and hospitals in those areas,” Archbishop Naumann noted.

He also viewed a call to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act as an opportunity for the country.

“There was a lot of dishonesty in the Affordable Care Act, not just about the conscience rights and what was done to the unborn,” he said. “It was a house of cards. The Medicaid provisions were not sustainable by states, I don’t think. Also, we see that many other parts of it were collapsing in terms of what was really available to people.”

Archbishop Naumann added, “The new plans hopefully will really be something that is sustainable. I think this is an opportunity to do something different from other parts of the world, and to really develop quality health care accessible to all.”

Before Bishop Dewane’s presentation, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, opened the agenda item on health care reform was introduced by saying, “We as bishops strive to engage in this debate as a voice for the voiceless, for the poor, the sick, the unborn.”

“We also strive to bring to the fore the many moral questions in health care that can affect human flourishing, from life’s earliest days to its very final moments,” the cardinal said. “Our teaching has much to offer the current discussions, and we have a unique obligation as bishops to make those teachings known. We are also very concerned with how this debate affects the ability of the church to engage in its venerable ministry of healing the sick.”

— By John Shaughnessy, assistant editor, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

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Church leaders welcome leaked HHS draft lifting contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

 

WASHINGTON — A leaked draft rule from the Department of Health and Human Services exempting religious groups from the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act was welcomed by church officials and attorneys representing the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of the groups that challenged the mandate at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a June 1 statement that the leaked draft has “yet to be formally issued and will require close study upon publication,” but it provides encouraging news.

“Relief like this is years overdue and would be most welcomed,” he said. Read more »

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House narrowly OKs Affordable Care Act repeal-replace bill

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act by a four-vote margin May 4. The final vote was 217-213.

Assuming that all Democrats voted against the bill, which they did, the Republicans needed to avoid having 22 of its own House members defect to the “no” camp. In the finally tally, 20 Republicans voted against the measure.

President Donald Trump gathers with Vice President Mike Pence and congressional Republicans at the White House in Washington May 4 after the House of Representatives approved a repeal of major parts of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a Republican health care bill. (CNS/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

President Donald Trump gathers with Vice President Mike Pence and congressional Republicans at the White House in Washington May 4 after the House of Representatives approved a repeal of major parts of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a Republican health care bill. (CNS/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

This latest GOP repeal-and-replace bill was rushed through with such speed that the Congressional Budget Office did not have time to prepare an analysis of it before the vote.

The previous American Health Care Act was dealt a big blow after the CBO said that 24 million people would lose health insurance over the next decade had the bill become law. That version of the bill never came to a vote as different factions among House Republicans voiced their opposition.

The new version was nearly scuttled when key Republican lawmakers said they would vote against it because it would have allowed insurance companies to charge more to Americans with pre-existing conditions, which had been banned under the Affordable Care Act. Some of them announced they would support the bill after an added $8 billion over the next five years was added to an original allocation of $130 billion it to help alleviate those issues.

Even with the bill’s passage in the House, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

Planned Parenthood would be blocked from receiving federal funding for one year under the new bill.

Catholic leaders were wary of the repeal-and-replace efforts.

Sister Carole Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said in an April 26 statement that changes to the bill, “intended to make it more palatable to those who did not support it initially, are even more disastrous for people who have just gotten health care.”

“The ACA is, by no means, a perfect law,” said a March 17 letter to members of Congress by Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee Domestic Justice and Social Development. “The Catholic bishops of the United States registered serious objections at the time of its passage. However, in attempting to improve the deficiencies of the ACA, health care policy ought not create other unacceptable problems, particularly for those who struggle on the margins of our society.”

At that time, Bishop Dewane lauded the “critical life protections” in the original bill,

In her own letter, sent March 8 to members of Congress, Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, said that despite the “commendable efforts” to protect the unborn and give states greater flexibility, the prospect of 70 million people on Medicaid getting reductions in health care “undermines access to life-saving coverage.”

One provision of the bill would let the federal government stop providing enhanced funding for new Medicaid enrollees after 2019, which would likely cause most of the 31 states and Washington that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to drop it, according to a May 3 analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. An estimated 11 million people receive Medicaid under the ACA. The bill also allows states to impose a work requirement for Medicaid recipients.

The legislation also would allow insurers to charge higher premiums to those in their 50s and early 60s, compared to younger consumers. Taxes on the wealthy, insurers and others under the ACA would be eliminated under the new bill, as would the individual mandate imposed by the ACA with its attendant penalties for noncompliance. The bill also would replace federal subsidies tied to personal income and insurance premiums and replace it with refundable tax credits based mainly on age to purchase health insurance.

One popular part of the ACA that was retained in the new bill was a requirement that children be carried on their parents’ family policies to age 26.

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New U.S. health care bill withdrawn after if falls short of votes in the House of Representatives

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, doesn’t mince words when it comes to the American Health Care Act, which was short of votes and withdrawn by House Republicans late March 24.

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan recommended March 24 that President Trump withdraw the American Health Care Act when it didn't have enough votes in the House. (CNS/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan recommended March 24 that President Trump withdraw the American Health Care Act when it didn’t have enough votes in the House. (CNS/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Two days before the GOP legislation was set for an initial vote in Congress and then delayed due to last-minute wrangling and efforts to gain support, she described the bill as a disgrace, a pro-life disaster, a huge step back, catastrophic for Catholic social teaching and something that would do incredible damage.

The woman religious, who heads an organization of more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in the United States, has a vested interest in the nation’s health care and she also knows the ins and outs of health care legislation from working behind the scenes “forever,” as she describes it, on the Affordable Care Act.

At the time that the ACA was being drafted, some Catholic organizations opposed key elements of the measure. Once it became law, more than 40 lawsuits were filed to challenge the subsequent Department of Health and Human Service’s mandate requiring that insurance plans include coverage for artificial birth control, sterilization and drugs that lead to abortions.

Sister Keehan is quick to point out that the health care legislation signed into law seven years ago is far from perfect, but she says it was an “incredible step forward.”

“I do recognize the political conflict and the imperfections in the bill, but when you can make insurance that much better for people who have it and give 20 million Americans insurance, that is a huge step forward,” she said March 21 in her Washington office.

At a 2015 Catholic Health Association gathering in Washington, President Barack Obama thanked Sister Keehan for her steadiness, strength and “steadfast voice.”

“We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act done had it not been for her,” he said.

The immediate repeal and replacement of the ACA was a key promise of President Donald Trump’s campaign, but the GOP health care measure has faced opposition from both conservative and moderate Republicans. Trump told House Republicans that he will leave ACA in place and move on to tax reform if they do not support the new health care legislation.

Watching the GOP efforts to repeal and replace the ACA has been hard for Sister Keehan mainly because she and other health care leaders were not consulted in the process.

“We should never, ever throw together a bill that’s going to be such a profound impact on the people of this country in this short of time and without any input from those who care for them,” she said.

The work on these two health care bills couldn’t have been more different, she pointed out, noting that prior to the ACA launch she felt like she “lived in committee rooms” because she was constantly meeting with committees, groups and subgroups at the White House and Congress.

With the GOP health care plan, she said there wasn’t any opportunity for hospital groups or the American Medical Association to give any advice.

“We’ve just been dismissed,” she said, noting that she attended a few small group meetings on Capitol Hill but “they were not meetings to get our input on what ought to be done with the bill but meetings to tell us what was going to be done.”

“This has just been railroaded through Congress,” she added.

While the U.S. bishops have applauded pro-life elements of the American Health Care Act, they also have criticized other elements and expressed concern for its impact on the disadvantaged.

In a March 17 letter to House members about the GOP measure, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the inclusion of “critical life protections” in the House health care bill is laudable, but other provisions, including those related to Medicaid and tax credits are “troubling” and “must be addressed.”

He said the bill’s restriction of funds to providers that promote abortion and prohibiting federal funding for abortion or the purchase of plans that provide abortion “honors a key moral requirement for our nation’s health care policy.” But he also criticized the absence of “any changes” from the current law regarding conscience protections against mandates to provide certain coverage or services considered morally objectionable by employers and health care providers.

“The ACA is, by no means, a perfect law,” Bishop Dewane said. “The Catholic bishops of the United States registered serious objections at the time of its passage. However, in attempting to improve the deficiencies of the ACA, health care policy ought not create other unacceptable problems, particularly for those who struggle on the margins of our society.”

Main provisions of the new House bill include: eliminating the mandate that most individuals have health insurance and putting in its place a new system of tax credits; expanding Health Savings Accounts; repealing Medicaid expansion and transitioning to a “per capita allotment”; and prohibiting health insurers from denying coverage or charging more money to patients based on pre-existing conditions.

Sister Keehan said she thanked Bishop Dewane for his letter to Congress and said the bishops had carefully gone through the legislation measure by measure on a number of issues. She also noted that she knows people in the pro-life community either think the new bill is strong enough or not doing enough.

As she sees it, the bill is “a pro-life disaster in the fact that when you take health care away from people, you take life.”

“If you want to really, really strengthen the pro-life culture in this country, you make sure people know that their lives and the lives of their children are so valued by our country,” she said, which means providing quality maternity and pediatric care and offering programs like Head Start and food stamps.

Although she said under the ACA no federal funds could be spent on abortion, a nonpartisan government agency in an assessment of the law in 2014 said abortion coverage was available in some plans. Sister Keehan also said the law included help for pregnant mothers to get drug rehabilitation, housing and maternity care, which are not included in the new bill.

“I don’t find this a pro-life bill at all from every perspective,” she added about the new measure.

When asked if there was a silver lining with people at least talking about the need to provide insurance for all Americans, Sister Keehan said the health care crisis for so many people doesn’t give “the luxury of time.”

“To be the only industrialized nation in the world that does not guarantee all its citizens health care is a disgrace,” she said, adding: “We are at a real crossroads in our country’s sense of its responsibility to its people.”

 

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