CHA switches sides on the HHS contraception controversy--now what?

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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The Associated Press is reporting that the Catholic Health Association, which has been oddly silent in recent months about the uproar over contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act, has now changed its tune on the Obama administration's proposed accommodation for religiously-affiliated employers not covered by the law's religious exemptions.

According to AP, the CHA sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that calls the administration's offer to shift the cost of contraception coverage to health insurance providers "unduly cumbersome" and "unlikely to adequately meet the religious liberty concerns" of Catholic hospitals. As of this writing, there's no mention of the letter nor any official statement from CHA on their own website.

In some ways, the news is a surprise. CHA and its president, Sister Carol Keehan, were big supporters of the Affordable Care Act from the beginning, even when it put them at odds with the U.S. bishops. Keehan was also quick to endorse President Obama's proposed accommodation in February, calling it "a resolution ... that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions."

So how did the proposal from the White House go from being a satisfying resolution that fixed the problem to being unable to adequately address the concerns of Catholic hospitals?

There's no doubt that Keehan has been under tremendous pressure to change her stance. The bishops have chosen to make this issue their primary focus, crafting a massive "religious freedom" campaign based around their argument that the government's regulation of health care infringes on the free exercise of their religion. After lengthy--and very public--disagreements between Keehan and the bishops, CHA has been quiet while all of this has been going on. 

The AP report says CHA's letter chalked the change of position up to further examination of the details of the accommodation. Perhaps that's true, but I suspect there have been more talks between the bishops and the CHA behind closed doors that helped persuade them to switch sides.

But what does their newfound opposition to the contraception requirement mean for the health care law? Hopefully it will result in further dialogue to find a solution that is truly workable for everyone. The bishops, with the flood of lawsuits filed against the government by Catholic groups, seemed to be done talking and more concerned with fighting. Maybe having Sister Carol on the bishops' side will reopen the lines of communication with the White House.

When I interviewed Keehan in 2009 about efforts to enact health care legislation, she spoke of the urgent need to extend coverage to the millions of Americans who had none. "Last year, one out of every six people in this country who have health care through their employer lost it," she said. "So how much longer can we wait? It is just unconscionable to let people be so insecure in their health right now, particularly children."

Keehan also wasn't willing to listen to critics who felt the push for health care legislation was moving too quickly and that it would be better to start from scratch in rebuilding the health system. "I think to say we scrap it and start over, no, and to say it is going too fast ... it is certainly not too fast if you talk to the people who are hurting right now."

I suspect she feels the same way about the current situation. There's no turning back, no scrapping it and starting over. Maybe she saw things coming to an impasse between the church and the government, and CHA's change in attitude is really an attempt to help broker a solution. Maybe rather than arguing over who picked this fight between the church and the Obama administration or whether the bishops' campaign is really a partisan effort in an election year, we can just sit back down and try to resolve things peacefully. For the sake of all those who truly need health care coverage, let's hope that's what happens.