The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked President Barack Obama to exempt religious institutions from fines related to health insurance requirements while legal challenges work their way through the courts.
"The administration's flexibility in implementing the [Affordable Care Act] has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our 'first freedom' under the Constitution," wrote Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky.
In a Dec. 31 letter, he asked Obama to extend the same kind of temporary exemption from penalties for noncompliance with the ACA that the administration has allowed for small employers and individuals whose current insurance plans will be canceled.
The letter described those allowances as "actions to advance the ACA's goal of maximizing health coverage, while minimizing hardships to Americans as the act is implemented."
Archbishop Kurtz said a whole category of Americans "has been left out in the cold: those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply with the (Health and Human Services) regulation requiring coverage of sterilization and contraceptives.
"This mandate includes drugs and devices that can interfere with the survival of a human being in the earliest stage of development, burdening religious convictions on abortion as well as contraception," the letter said. It noted that at least 90 lawsuits representing almost 300 plaintiffs have been filed to challenge the mandate. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of the cases, and several lower courts have found merit in the claims and granted at least temporary relief to the institutions and businesses. Other courts have yet to take up the cases. Still others have ruled the employers must comply.
Archbishop Kurtz asked the president to consider that, under other actions by the administration, no employers will be required to offer a health plan at all, and that employers face no penalty in the coming year for canceling coverage.
However, he added, "an employer who chooses, out of charity and good will, to provide and fully subsidize an excellent health plan for employees -- but excludes sterilization or any contraceptive drug or device -- faces crippling fines of up to $100 a day or $36,500 a year per employee. In effect, the government seems to be telling employees that they are better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan that does not cover contraceptives. This is hard to reconcile with an act whose purpose is to bring us closer to universal coverage."
The letter said the result is "a regulation that harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith."
The archbishop added that he realizes the legal issues will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court.
"In the meantime, however, many religious employers have not obtained the temporary relief they need in time to avoid being subjected to the HHS mandate beginning Jan. 1," he wrote. "I urge you, therefore, to consider offering temporary relief from this mandate, as you have for so many other individuals and groups facing other requirements under the ACA."