Bishops to Obama: No dice

posted at 8:40 am on February 11, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

After a long day of supposed “accommodation” and discussion, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops took a close look at the supposed adjustment of the HHS mandate yesterday.  Their conclusion?  It represents no change at all, and the bishops will press for a “legislative solution” to Barack Obama’s mandate:

These changes require careful moral analysis, and moreover, appear subject to some measure of change. But we note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders—for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals—is unacceptable and must be corrected. And in the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer’s plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns.

We just received information about this proposal for the first time this morning; we were not consulted in advance. Some information we have is in writing and some is oral. We will, of course, continue to press for the greatest conscience protection we can secure from the Executive Branch. But stepping away from the particulars, we note that today’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.

We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.

The bishops note that the Obama administration never even bothered to contact them to discover what their true objections are, and what would satisfy them.  The White House simply presumed to know church business better than the bishops and offered an “accommodation” that is anything but.  In fact, that sounds a lot like the process that produced this mandate in the first place.

There are two broad objections in the USCCB statement.  First, they are opposed to the mandate in general for moral reasons, but that alone would probably take the form of a teaching moment for the bishops rather than a call to action.  They note that the overall mandate is “unsupported in the law and remains a grave moral concern,” and that they “cannot fail to reiterate this, even as so many would focus exclusively on the question of religious liberty.” But it’s that question that animates their activism, and it’s not just the fact that these religious organizations will end up paying for these products and services either directly or indirectly — which we’ll address momentarily.  The mandate forces these organizations to facilitate the use of products and services that violate their religious doctrine, under penalty of government force.  It’s exactly the type of government threat from which the First Amendment was written to protect religious practice — and that included the practice of religion outside of worship spaces.

Second, supporters of the Obama administration’s mandate claim that there won’t be any cost at all to pass along from this new policy, based on this analysis from HHS itself, included in last night’s QOTD:

The direct costs of providing contraception as part of a health insurance plan are very low and do not add more than approximately 0.5% to the premium costs per adult enrollee. Studies from three actuarial firms, Buck Consultants, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and the Actuarial Research Corporation (ARC) have estimated the direct costs of providing contraception coverage.

However, as indicated by the empirical evidence described above, these direct estimated costs overstate the total premium cost of providing contraceptive coverage. When medical costs associated with unintended pregnancies are taken into account, including costs of prenatal care, pregnancy complications, and deliveries,the net effect on premiums is close to zero. One study author concluded, ‘The message is simple: regardless of payment mechanism or contraceptive method, contraception saves money.’

When indirect costs such as time away from work and productivity loss are considered, they further reduce the total cost to an employer.

At the same time, LifeNews quoted a Blue Cross study that showed the mandate would cost insurers — and their clients — almost $3 billion.  So who’s right?  It’s Blue Cross, and here’s why.  Blue Cross estimated what the actual costs for providing the mandated products and services would be, while HHS projected estimates of long-term savings.  In truth, no one is really sure whether those long-term savings will come to pass, but what we do know is that costs will rise immediately as insurers have to pay for the contraceptives and abortifacients for which they will get no cost-sharing from the women who use them.  When those costs go up in the short term, so will premiums.  If the long-term savings that HHS predicts do come to pass, all it will do will be to avoid premium hikes far down the road, but the initial impact will force insurers to raise premiums to cover these costs — and that means the religious organizations that have to pay more to cover the costs of the mandate.  So yes indeed, they will have to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients despite the shell game announced by the White House yesterday.

The Obama administration’s “accommodation” was nothing more than a smoke screen intended to get rid of a bad political problem.  The bishops aren’t going to let them get away with it, and that means that Obama will still have religious organizations — and not just Catholics — demanding an end to the mandate and forcing a fight over religious liberty.  Don’t expect it to go on for long, because this will prove disastrous to Obama’s political support in the fall if left in its current status.  I’d give it a week, perhaps less, before we see a real climbdown.


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