For the women employed by the former Hackley Hospital in Muskegon, Michigan, last week’s news couldn’t have been better. President Obama’s announcement that Catholic hospitals and educational institutions must provide contraceptive coverage to employees should mean those women will finally be getting back the insurance coverage for birth control they lost in 2007, when their hospital merged with a nearby Catholic hospital. That is, unless the Catholic bishops and their allies in Congress succeed in unraveling the birth control coverage mandate for the hospital’s employees and millions of other American women.
Just as the bishops had demanded, Obama announced that Catholic hospitals, colleges and social services agencies would not have to pay for contraceptive coverage for their employees. Instead, under what Obama characterized as an “accommodation,” the hospitals’ insurance companies would be required to offer the coverage at no extra charge to employees and their dependents. Insurers are expected to be willing to pay the birth control cost, since they save money by avoiding more costly pregnancy care.
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, the trade group representing the nation’s Catholic hospitals, quickly embraced the compromise, noting, “The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.”
But the bishops, after initially calling the president’s action a “good first step,” rejected it. Spokesman Richard Doerflinger explained that the bishops don’t want employees of any Catholic-affiliated institution to be able to have contraceptive coverage at all, even if somebody else is paying for it. The bishops’ allies in Congress are now pushing proposals to allow any employer to refuse to cover any health service on the grounds of moral or religious objection.
For the sake of the women of all faiths who work for Catholic hospitals, let’s hope the bishops and their friends don’t succeed in this wrong-headed campaign. The years without contraceptive coverage have been challenging for the women employed as secretaries, nurses and janitors at the former Hackley Hospital. One nurse, who had been planning to have a tubal ligation, found herself with no coverage for the procedure after the merger and not enough money in her family budget to pay for it.
“We are just praying I don’t get pregnant until we can figure out how to get something,” she said, asking for anonymity out of fear she would lose her job for speaking out. “My doctor is Mercy-employed and he doesn’t have [contraceptive] samples.… I got pregnant twice on birth control. Some patients like me need some form of permanent birth control.… My third pregnancy I lost twins.… I can’t go through more. It’s taken a toll on my marriage.”
After losing contraceptive coverage, some hospital employees began going to a local Title X family planning clinic. “It put a strain on the clinic, which wasn’t designed to serve women who already have health insurance,” said Faith Groesbeck, an employee of the local health department who monitored the impact. “Taxpayers were making up for the health coverage these employees had lost.” One hospital employee noted that although the policy respects the religious view of her employer, it fails to respect her own views. “If I have health insurance,” she said, “I should get birth control…why should I have to follow what they believe?”
The Catholic bishops have every right to try to persuade Catholic women not to use birth control—although they do not appear to be succeeding, since studies show 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception. But, Catholic hospitals are not churches. They are non-profit healthcare institutions licensed to provide healthcare to people in the communities they serve. Catholic hospitals operate with little or no church money, according to a study MergerWatch carried out in 2002. In fact, that study found that religiously affiliated hospitals bill the government more than $42 billion a year under the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
The more than 700,000 full and part-time employees of Catholic-affiliated hospitals in this country, including the former Hackley Hospital, deserve the same kind of contraceptive coverage that employees of other hospitals will be getting under the Affordable Care Act health reform law. Affordable birth control helps women plan and space pregnancies, which leads to healthier mothers and babies. You would think the bishops would be applauding that health outcome.