During a Washington press conference Tuesday, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters the Obama administration plans to issue a rule "in the near future" on its compromise plan on contraception coverage that will apparently resolve some outstanding problems associated with the "accommodation" offered by the president on Feb. 10. Under the current proposal, which has not proved satisfactory to U.S. bishops, insurance providers, not employers would "pay" for newly required contraception services, including sterilization and prescriptions the bishops describe as abortifacients. But that accomodation leaves Catholic agencies that are self-insured in an awkward position; the administration seems to be trying to respond. Sebelius apparently is talking to a lot of folk about how to reach a workable compromise. Politico reports she is meeting with insurers, clergy and union and health leaders to get feedback on how to make a final resolution work.
"We’ve begun outreach," Sebelius said. "I have talked to Catholic health leaders, I’m reaching out to priests. We’re also talking to union leaders, we’re talking to our partners at labor who run the self-insured plans to figure out a strategy." All well and good and talking is preferable to shouting, but this sudden enthusiasm for dialogue begs the question: what exactly was her department and the Obama administration doing during the months the interim language on contraception and the now much-debated narrow religious exemption hung out there in the cultural wilderness?
It would seem that lengthy interregnum would have been the most opportune time for these conversations to have taken place, that is, before launching a lacerating fight with and within the Catholic Church. What exactly was the "comment" period for when a completely unaltered exemption was ultimately issued and who among the many who submitted appeals for a broader exemption was the administration talking to, working toward its decision to release the exemption unchanged, if anyone? And who did they consult to reach their "compromise" accomodation on Feb. 10? They clearly did not run any trial ballons by the U.S. bishops, their primary counterforce in this cultural conflict. And who, finally, are they talking to now to work towards yet another conclusion that will somehow be acceptable to all parties, which, at this ungainly table, now includes the U.S. bishops, the Catholic Health Association, CCUSA and Planned Parenthood and NOW?
Sebelius assures: "We intend to propose a rule in the near future on some implementation strategies that I think do exactly what the president says—which is make sure women have preventive health services and respect religious freedom." Whatever your position on the contraception/religious liberty conflict, I would have to say that this fiasco is mainly attributable to some incredibly poor political instincts and follow through by the Obama administration. Maybe they have learned from their mistakes and Sebelius is right, they are working toward a solid conclusion, but I see little reason to be confident about that based on performance so far. Let's hope at this juncture the HHS and the administration have begun talking to people who don't necessarily agree with them on this policy. It's hard to reach a real compromise if you don't talk to the people you need to reach a compromise with.