Sebelius pressed on EWTN objections to mandate in hearing

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Kathleen Sebelius, Speaking at a Meeting with OIC Health Ministers, May 17, 2011. Credit: Eric Bridiers-US Mission Geneva.

The world's largest religious media network was the subject of an exchange between a congresswoman and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as she faced questions about the contraception mandate April 26.

“As you may know, the Catholic TV station, the Eternal Word Television Network, EWTN, is located in my home state of Alabama,” Representative Martha Roby (R-AL) told Sebelius, during a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on Health and Human Services' 2013 budget.

“EWTN does not fall under the small umbrella of the religious exemption as a 'religious employer,' nor do many hospitals, charitable service organizations, and universities,” said Roby, noting a criticism that has been lodged against the mandate's narrow classification of exempt groups.

“Putting aside any future accomodation, why is EWTN, and similar religiously-affiliated entities, not simply exempt from covering these services, especially when these drugs – such as the morning-after pill … fundamentally contradict their moral beliefs?”

“The Affordable Care Act made it clear that in the future, insurance policies should include health benefits essential to women's health care,” Sebelius responded.

“We asked the Institute of Medicine to give us an analysis of what were the key preventive health services for women. They included everything from domestic violence screening, to maternity care, to contraceptive coverage.”

Roby asked Sebelius why her department was “defining some religious organizations as acceptable for
the full exemption,” while others were not “religious enough” to qualify.

Sebelius responded that the administration had modeled its federal mandate on existing state laws that place a similar requirement on employers.

In most of these cases, however, employers with a conscientious objection can avoid the rule through self-insurance and other options. An analysis by the U.S. bishops' conference found that all such routes were cut off by the federal contraception mandate.

The health and human services secretary also cited the administration's proposed “accommodation,” announced in February 2012, under which she said the mandate would fall “not to the employer, but to the insurance company.”

The accommodation has been criticized as an “accounting gimmick” that continues to involve organizations in providing services against their beliefs. It offers no relief for EWTN, which has no external insurance provider but is self-insured.

With the backing of Alabama's state attorney general, EWTN is currently suing Sebelius over the contraception mandate. The network's attorney John Manos confirmed on April 27 that HHS “has not made any accommodation or change to the final rule that would relieve EWTN from the mandate to pay for so-called 'preventative services' among which are contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.”

During Thursday's hearing, Sebelius also clarified that all insurance companies would be forced by the government to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-causing drugs without a co-pay.

Under the mandate, she told Roby, plans that exclude the controversial services “won't be certified to be sold on the market.”

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