HHS secretary stumps for Affordable Care Act

LISA JOHNSTON | lisajohnston@archstl.org

During a visit to St. Louis this month, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed the ongoing issue of religious liberty and the implications the Affordable Care Act and HHS mandate present to faith-based business owners.

Sebelius was in town Sept. 19 as part of a multi-city tour promoting the Affordable Care Act. On Oct. 1, the federal government will open the Health Insurance Marketplace, a central location where individual consumers and small businesses can learn more about the available health care options under the Affordable Care Act. Included in her meeting at St. Louis City Hall were St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

During a short media briefing, the Review asked Sebelius about the number of lawsuits brought on by faith-based business owners who object to the HHS mandate, which will require most employers to provide contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed.

To date, there are 72 lawsuits against the government, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Department of Justice petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 19 to review the case of retailer Hobby Lobby, which sued the government because of the family-owned business' moral objection to the mandate. The Little Sisters of the Poor is the latest group to file a suit against the government, on Sept. 24. (See story, page 18.)

Sebelius acknowledged the suits and said, "I think there has been a dispute of one area of preventive services, and there is an exemption for religious employers (and) there is a total exemption for any church-based groups." However, Sebelius also acknowledged that "has not been satisfactory to some for-profit employers, but frankly the litigation will continue on. The (Catholic Health Association) enthusiastically endorsed the proposal that was put forward. We do work closely with a lot of religious organizations, universities and others, and I think that work will continue and the litigation will continue."

In a Sept. 17 letter to U.S. bishops, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continues to study the legal and moral implications of the HHS mandate. The letter from Cardinal Dolan, president of the USCCB, was a follow-up from the bishops' Sept. 10-11 Administrative Committee meeting, where they discussed the mandate, among other topics.

In his letter to the bishops, Cardinal Dolan emphasized that the USCCB Administrative Committee was unanimous in its resolve to continue its struggle with the HHS mandate and he likewise voiced concern regarding the Catholic Health Association's "hurried acceptance of the accommodation," which he called "untimely and unhelpful."

"We highly value CHA's great expertise in their ministry of healing," Cardinal Dolan said, "but as they have been the first to say, they do not represent the magisterium of the Church."

He said the final rule issued June 28 has "the same three basic problems" found in the original rule issued in February: a narrow definition of "religious employer" that "reduces religious freedom to the freedom of worship by dividing our community between houses of worship and ministries of service"; second-class treatment of such ministries through a "so-called 'accommodation'"; and a "failure to offer any relief to for-profit businesses run by so many of our faithful in the pews."

During the press conference in St. Louis, Sebelius noted that there are about 800,000 Missourians who are eligible for health care coverage and are uninsured. She also spoke of the importance of Medicaid expansion to provide even greater coverage options for Missourians.

"A Wall Street Journal poll just confirmed about 70 percent of people still don't understand what the law means for them and their families and what kind of benefits they may be entitled to," she said. "That's what this local effort is all about."

Cardinal Dolan, in his letter, said the Catholic Church has long been a leader in providing affordable health care. "The bishops on a national level have been at it for almost 100 years, and our heroic women and men religious have done so even longer."

But now, he pointed out, "instead of spending our time, energy, and treasure on increasing access to health care, as we have done for many decades, we're now forced to spend those resources on determining how to respond to recently enacted government regulations that restrict and burden our religious freedom."

Catholic News Service contributed some information for this story.

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