.- The U.S. bishops have praised the inclusion of new legislative provisions that, if passed, could prevent financial penalties from being levied against institutions that don’t comply with the controversial HHS mandate that requires coverage for sterilization and contraception, including abortion-causing drugs.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston on July 18 thanked the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor/HHS action that added two provisions to the annual appropriations bill.
The subcommittee, he said, took “a first, urgently needed step toward upholding rights of conscience and religious freedom in our health care system.”
The cardinal welcomed the inclusion of the policy from the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act in the House appropriations bill. He said it will ensure that the 2010 health care legislation “allows Americans to purchase health coverage without being forced to abandon their deeply held religious and moral convictions on matters such as abortion and sterilization.”
Cardinal DiNardo said the language should be incorporated to counter the HHS mandate, which he has previously called “the most direct federal threat to religious freedom in recent memory.”
The mandate affects most businesses that have 50 employees or more. Its narrow religious freedom exemptions do not include most Catholic colleges, health systems and charities, despite Catholic objections to contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs.
While the Obama administration has said it will propose an accommodation, it is unclear whether it will address concerns.
The House subcommittee’s provision denies HHS funding for the enforcement of financial penalties against institutions which do not comply with the mandate.
Cardinal DiNardo also praised the House subcommittee’s inclusion of the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act in the appropriations bill. The act would codify the Hyde/Weldon Amendment that prevents government discrimination against health care providers who will not participate in abortion.
The amendment presently denies all Labor Department and Health and Human Services funds to states or other governmental entities that discriminate against health care entities that decline to provide, pay for, provide coverage for or refer for abortions.
Victims of discrimination presently must file a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services.
In a July 17 letter, the cardinal said this approach has been criticized as “implausible and subject to legal challenge,” noting that the HHS places a low priority on these complaints and has itself been charged with discrimination.
The revised provision allows plaintiffs to defend their rights in court.
Some states have claimed that they can force all health plans on their health insurance exchanges to cover elective abortion as an “essential health benefit,” the cardinal warned.
On July 18 Cardinal DiNardo thanked Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chair of the appropriations subcommittee, for sponsoring the conscience provisions.
“The Catholic community and many others concerned about religious freedom will work hard to ensure that these protections are enacted into law,” he said.
The subcommittee bill must pass the full House Appropriations Committee and the House of Representatives before being sent to the Senate.