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New rules to opt out of HHS mandate still unsatisfactory, says USCCB

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By Catholic News Service 

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Oct. 8 urged the federal government “to reconsider” its new rules to allow religious institutions — and potentially some for-profit companies — to opt out of the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

On Aug. 22, the Obama administration issued rules it described as a “work around” to offer religious employers who are not exempt from the mandate a new way to opt out of coverage they find morally objectionable.

The rules also provide some for-profit companies a way to opt out.

The interim final rules for religious nonprofits was made effective immediately, but the government opened a 60-day comment period, ending Oct. 21. A 60-day comment period for the rules for for-profit companies ends the same day.

Even under the new rules, employers “that fall outside the narrow government definition of ‘religious employer'” are still required “to facilitate the objectionable coverage,” the USCCB said in comments filed with the Labor Department’s Office of Health Plan Standards and Compliance Assistance.

They were submitted by Anthony Picarello, USCCB general counsel, and Michael Moses, associate general counsel.

“The administration continues to propose an unjust and unlawful mandate … an arbitrarily narrow exemption for houses of worship … no exemption at all for most stakeholders,” the USCCB also said in its comments.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, HHS requires nearly all employers to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs for all employees in company health plans. It includes a narrow exemption for religious employers that fit certain criteria.

Employers who are not exempt had been required to fill out a self-certification form — known as EBSA Form 700 — to direct a third party, usually the manager of an employer’s health plan, to provide the contested coverage.

Many religious employers that have sued over the mandate argue that even filling out Form 700 makes them complicit in providing coverage they find objectionable.

Now under the new rules, an eligible organization may advise HHS in writing of its religious objection to contraception coverage. HHS itself will then notify the insurer for a health plan, or the Department of Labor will notify the third-party administrator for a self-insured plan, that the organization objects to providing contraception coverage.

The insurer or third-party administrator is responsible for providing enrollees separate no-cost payments for contraceptive services for as long as they remain in the plan.

When the new rules were issued in August, HHS said they “balance our commitment to helping ensure women have continued access to coverage for preventative services important to their health, with the administration’s goal of respecting religious beliefs.”

The USCCB in its Oct. 8 comments took issue with the federal government’s claim the new rules provide an alternative to Form 700, because the notification that now goes to the government is “not limited to a statement of objection” about the coverage.

The notice must include, according to the USCCB, “certain specified information that — by the government’s own account — is needed to ensure that the very coverage to which the employer objects is extended to its employees.”

“The alternative notification to the government does nothing to alter the questions and concerns about the source of funding for contraceptive payments,” the USCCB said.

Posted Oct. 9, 2014

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