Bishop denounces health network's compliance with mandate

Bishop Paul J Swain of Souix Falls File Photo CNA CNA US Catholic News 3 19 13 Bishop Paul J. Swain of Souix Falls (File Photo/CNA).

The bishop of a South Dakota diocese has spoken out after a Catholic health care provider made the decision to comply with the federal contraception mandate without seeking diocesan counsel or authorization.

Jerry Klein, delegate for social outreach for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, told CNA on March 19 that "there is a continued dialogue between the diocese and Avera" Catholic health care systems, but that a response from the health care provider is "not anticipated."

Avera, a regional health network in South Dakota operated by the Benedictine and Presentation sisters, runs more than 100 hospitals, clinics and nursing homes throughout the area.

On March 1, Bishop Paul J. Swain of Sioux Falls wrote a letter to the clergy of the diocese notifying them that Avera had decided to change its policies to conform with a federal mandate requiring health insurance plans to offer free coverage of contraception, sterilization and early abortion-inducing drugs.

Catholic bishops from every dioceses around the country, including Bishop Swain, have banded together to oppose the mandate, arguing that it coerces individuals into violating their deeply-held religious beliefs by forcing them to provide these products and procedures.

"This development is troubling in a number of ways," wrote Bishop Swain of Avera's decision to comply with the mandate. "Most importantly, as an organization, Avera will now be materially cooperative in the termination of life.

"Avera's decision," added the bishop, "creates public scandal; as a Catholic institution, its practice is of course inconsistent with Church teaching."

The bishop described Avera's health care over the years as a "ministry of hope" and "a great gift of loving service to those in need," made possible by the "heroic sacrifices" of all those involved. Because of all the valuable services that have been provided by the system, he said that he was "deeply saddened" by news of Avera's decision to include the immoral coverage.

"While healthcare today is complex and highly regulated," said Bishop Swain, "compliance with government requirements must not be viewed as licit reasoning for compromising moral teachings."

He explained in the letter that Avera's president and CEO, John Porter, said that he had personally made the decision to bring the company into compliance with the mandate.

Bishop Swain added that he was neither consulted nor informed of the decision before it was made.

Two members of diocesan offices in Sioux Falls had been members of the Avera board of directors and finance committee. However, the men did not play any part in the decision, and both have since resigned from their posts on the board.  

Currently, Avera's policy change applies only to health insurance plans offered through for-profit businesses and for individuals. Plans covering priests and lay diocesan employees have not been affected because they are currently protected by a one-year "safe harbor" period. The government is currently preparing details of a revised policy for religious groups that will take effect when the safe harbor period ends; however, the initially proposed ideas have been criticized as inadequate to protect religious liberty.

Bishop Swain told his priests that he wanted them to be informed of the development because many Catholics in the diocese "have grown accustomed to choosing a health insurance plan or medical providers based upon the Catholic mission of Avera," but the group's recent decision "ends our ability to blindly trust that all its activities are consistent with Church teaching."

He said that he has asked Avera's administration to stay in touch with him so that both dialogue and consultation can be offered as the regulations go into effect for religious employer plans later this year.

"Sadly, we must consider whether a Catholic healthcare delivery system in our day will be able to balance the regulatory and financial obligations it faces in order to remain a viable business while maintaining its unique and important mission of the healing ministry of Jesus," he said.

"Let us all continue to pray that our religious liberty and freedom of conscience might be protected and that those who carry out the ministry of Catholic healthcare might be encouraged to persevere when facing financial and regulatory adversity," the bishop concluded.

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