Bishops ponder latest HHS mandate proposals

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — On March 16, the Obama administration offered new proposals and a 90-day comment period for religious organizations that object to the U.S. Health and Human Services contraception, sterilization and abortifacient mandate.

The proposals were contained in a 32- page document called “Advance notice of proposed rulemaking,” published in the Federal Register.

The document, issued by six federal agencies, including HHS, said the advance notice announced the intention of the agencies to propose amendments to regulations pertaining to preventive health services under the Affordable Care Act. The comment period is for those nonexempt religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage.

“This document serves as a request for comments in advance of proposed rulemaking on the potential means of accommodating such organizations while ensuring contraceptive coverage for plan participants and beneficiaries covered under their plans (or, in the case of student health insurance plans, student enrollees and their dependents) without cost sharing,” the document read.

In it, the administration proposes that mandated coverage found objectionable by religious organizations be paid for by third-party administrators of health plans, or an independent agency that would receive funding from other sources such as rebates from pharmaceutical companies.

It also clarified, in some ways, its earlier position on self-insured institutions, such as employees of a diocesan school.

“If [a] school provides health coverage for its employees through the same plan under which the diocese provides coverage for its employees,” reads the statement, “and the diocese is exempt from the requirement to cover contraceptive services, then neither the diocese nor the school is required to offer contraceptive coverage to its employees.”

It is not immediately clear how these “clarifications” apply to church entities other than parish schools. The admin- istration did specify, however, that most college student health insurance plans must include free contraceptive coverage. Religiously affiliated colleges would be given an additional year to comply.

Colleges with self-insured student health coverage plans will not be re- quired to offer free contraceptive coverage, but rather a third-party administrator or some other independent entity would assume this responsibility to provide contraceptive coverage.

As of press time on March 20, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was still reviewing the Obama administration’s proposals.

“The bishops are studying the announcement which the HHS put forth late Friday afternoon,” said Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media rela- tions for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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