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Catholic leaders not satisfied with Obama contraceptive change

| Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012

Roman Catholic leaders in Western Pennsylvania are not fully satisfied with an "accommodation" the Obama administration announced on Friday aimed at dulling the election-year firestorm over a federal mandate that religious employers provide free contraceptives.

The president, yielding after weeks of growing opposition to a provision in the 2010 health care law, said the onus for providing contraceptive services to women would instead be on insurance companies, not employers such as Duquesne University, a Catholic church-affiliated institution that serves and employs 1,280 people of all faiths.

"It sounds like smoke and mirrors to me," said Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik. "It's not just a matter of paying for it, but providing services that go against our beliefs."

Church leaders and Republican leaders argued that the rules requiring religious-affiliated entities such as hospitals and universities -- but not churches -- to provide contraceptives were an attack on religious freedom. In an announcement at the White House, President Obama said, "Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women."

"Our initial reaction was that it's a step in the right direction," said Bridget Fare, a spokeswoman for Duquesne, whose employees can choose between Highmark Inc. and UPMC health plans. "It's an acknowledgment by the administration that we should not be forced to ignore our religious convictions."

More than 2,600 workers -- laypeople and priests -- are covered by diocesan health care plans in the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg, and they have a choice between Highmark and UPMC.

Zubik maintains that the rule threatens such institutions as Catholic Charities, which offer wide-ranging social services to more than 80,000 people of all faiths annually.

Bishop Mark Bartchak of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown said that it appears "the church would be compelled indirectly to pay for that coverage because, like any other health care consumer, we have to pay insurance premiums."

"There is no such thing as free insurance. I cannot agree to pay for or support contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if I am not paying for them directly," Bartchak said.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which led opposition to the original rule, said it would reserve judgment on the details "until we have them." A spokesman for Greensburg Bishop Lawrence Brandt declined comment, saying the bishop is reviewing details of the plan.

Women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-payments or premiums no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insists must remain. But religious universities and hospitals that consider contraception as a violation of their faith can refuse to cover it, and insurance companies then will have to step in to do so.

Women's health advocates praised the move as "a compromise that makes sense."

"Our primary concern is access to women," said Rebecca Cavanaugh, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. "Women often have to choose between birth control and food."

Republicans were beating on Obama over the issue, and even Democrats and some liberal groups allied with the Roman Catholic Church were defecting.

"There's no such thing as a 'free' service, and the cost for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs will simply be tacked onto other health plans or passed along to the taxpayers," said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. "While framed as a compromise, one's faith and religious beliefs can never be compromised."

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said the revamped rule marks a "full-scale retreat by a disconnected president who now knows that Washington shouldn't force Americans to abandon their religious convictions."

Obama acknowledged hearing "genuine concerns" before "it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option."

The average American woman would save more than $600 a year on contraceptives under the Obama plan, said Voices for Planned Parenthood at the University of Pittsburgh, which held an educational event yesterday on campus.

"We want to see how the 'accommodation' will be implemented," said Christine Stone, state policy advocacy chair of the National Council of Jewish Women. "We want all women, no matter where they work, to have access."

The controversy is not a new issue in Pittsburgh. In a lawsuit filed in August in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, Duquesne alleged Highmark paid claims for contraceptives and Botox and otherwise mishandled its prescription drug plan for three years.

The Catholic school seeks to recover the $1.75 million it said it overpaid between July 2007 and July 2010. The lawsuit is pending.

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