The New York State Catholic Conference sharply criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s Oct. 1 refusal to review a state law that would force some Catholic organizations to provide contraception coverage as part of employees’ prescription-drug benefits.
In declining to review the case, the high court effectively upheld the 2002 Women’s Health and Wellness Act, which requires employers who provide prescription-drug coverage in their employee health plans to also include contraception coverage. The law contains a provision exempting religious employers, but the exemption was so narrowly drawn that it excluded such entities as Catholic Charities, Catholic health institutions and some schools because they employ and serve non-Catholics.
The Catholic conference, which represents New York’s bishops in public-policy matters, said the ruling could open the door to religious hospitals being forced to provide abortions.
“The Catholic Church’s unpopular teaching on contraception was an easy target for the church’s detractors,” said a statement from Richard E. Barnes, the conference’s executive director. “But as the state’s attorneys have conceded in open court, the principle they were defending would have been exactly the same if the issue was abortion rather than contraception.”
Pro-life advocates also contend that some forms of contraception can act as abortifacients by preventing implantation of fertilized embryos in the uterine wall.
“From the very beginning we felt this was as much about abortion as anything else,” Dennis Poust, the conference’s director of communications, told the Catholic Courier.
Barnes predicted that an abortion mandate would become the next key issue for those who had promoted the contraception bill, noting that for several years a bill has been introduced in the state Assembly to mandate abortion coverage in all insurance plans.
Also, Gov. Eliot Spitzer earlier this year proposed a bill that could be used to force all insurance plans, including those provided by religious employers, to cover abortion and to force all hospitals, including religiously affiliated ones, to allow abortions to be performed on their premises.
The question of contraception mandates arose with the proposition and passage of the 2002 law. A group of Catholic and Protestant churches, schools, health-care institutions and social-service agencies, including several Catholic Charities agencies and First Bible Baptist Church in Rochester, argued in court that the law violated religious freedom. The Catholic Church has a long-held teaching that the use of artificial contraception is sinful, the Catholic conference noted.
In a Oct. 19, 2006 ruling, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, upheld the law, saying its intent was to expand health-insurance coverage for such women’s services as mammography, cervical cytology and bone-density screenings. The decision also noted that the New York District of the American College Obstetricians and Gynecologists advised the state Legislature that better access to contraception would mean fewer abortions and unplanned pregnancies.
The Court of Appeals last year said religious organizations still had the option of not buying prescription-drug coverage for their employees. Yet Catholic officials contended that Catholic social teaching compels them to pay just wages and benefits to employees.
For the immediate future, nonexempt Catholic institutions will continue providing contraception coverage under formal protest as they have been doing for more than three years now; many have sent letters to insurers expressing their displeasure with the law, Poust said.
“We are in the same situation that we have been in,” said Jack Balinsky, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Rochester. “We have been providing health insurance, including a pharmacy benefit, under protest. We’ve had no choice.”
Balinsky said Catholic Charities will continue to evaluate its options.
“The bishops of New York state must consider what alternatives the Legislature and courts have left them, including the painful possibility of a loss of prescription-drug benefits in employee health plans,” Barnes said in his statement.
The option of starting a self-insurance pool is another possibility, but this option is inherently risky, because a few large medical bills can quickly exhaust a self-insurance pool, Poust said.
The court’s decision could affect thousands of employees. According to the Catholic conference, the Catholic Church is the largest nonpublic provider of education, health care and human services in New York state, operating more than 700 schools serving 300,000 students; 29 hospitals with 8,541 beds; 54 nursing homes with 11,601 beds; and hundreds of social-service agencies that serve more than 1.3 million New Yorkers every year.
Balinsky, who also serves as health-care coordinator for the diocese, said the decision does not affect low-cost health-insurance plans offered by Fidelis Care, the state bishops’ health-insurance company. Fidelis’ Medicaid managed-care plans do not include prescription-drug coverage beyond the benefit offered by Medicaid.