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Groups settle in lawsuit against HHS contraceptive mandate

WASHINGTON — Dozens of Catholic groups that challenged the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act have reached a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, they announced late Oct. 16.

The groups, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the Pennsylvania dioceses of Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Erie, were represented by the Cleveland-based law firm Jones Day.

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl wrote an Oct. 16 letter to archdiocesan priests saying the "binding agreement" ends the litigation challenging the Health and Human Services' mandate and provides a "level of assurance as we move into the future."

The Washington Archdiocese was one of dozens of groups challenging the mandate, which went to the Supreme Court last year in the consolidated case of Zubik v. Burwell. Although it was most often described as the Little Sisters of the Poor fighting against the federal government, the case before the court involved seven plaintiffs and each of these combined cases represented a group of schools, churches or Church-sponsored organizations.

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik, for whom the case is named, said he was grateful for the settlement, which he described as an "agreement with the government that secures and reaffirms the constitutional right of religious freedom."

On Oct. 17, the bishop stated the diocese's five-year-long challenge to the mandate "has been resolved successfully" allowing Catholic Charities in the diocese and other religious organizations of different denominations to be exempt from "insurance coverage or practices that are morally unacceptable."

He said the settlement follows the recent release of new federal regulations that provide religious organizations with a full exemption from covering items that violate their core beliefs.

On Oct. 6, the Trump administration issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate to include religious employers who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance. The same day, the U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance to all administrative agencies and executive departments regarding religious liberty protections in federal law.

Cardinal Wuerl wrote in his letter to priests that the new guidelines and regulations were extremely helpful but that the "settlement of the Zubik litigation adds a leavening of certainty moving forward. It removes doubt where it might otherwise exist as it closes those cases."

"The settlement adds additional assurances," he added, "that we will not be subject to enforcement or imposition of similar regulations imposing such morally unacceptable mandates moving forward."

Thomas Aquinas College of Santa Paula, Calif., one of the groups that fell under the Washington Archdiocese's challenge of the HHS mandate to the Supreme Court, welcomed the broadening of the exemption from the HHS mandate by the Trump administration in early October. But, the school's president, Michael McLean, stated, the settlement of the case provides "something even better: a permanent exemption from an onerous federal directive — and any similar future directive — that would require us to compromise our fundamental beliefs."

The school's statement said according to the terms of the settlement, the government concedes that the contraceptive mandate "imposes a substantial burden" on the plaintiffs' exercise of religion and "cannot be legally enforced" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The contraceptive mandate, in place since 2012, required all employers to provide contraceptive coverage in their employer insurance. Last year when opposition to this mandate came to the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously returned the case to the lower courts with instructions to determine if contraceptive insurance coverage could be obtained by employees through their insurance companies without directly involving religious employers who object to paying for such coverage. 

U.S. bishop concerned about impact of Trump's health care order on poor

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A part of President Donald Trump's Oct. 13 executive order on health care that would end subsidies to health insurance companies aimed at helping individuals with low to modest incomes is of "grave concern," a U.S. bishop said.

"The Affordable Care Act is by no means perfect," said Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., but he warned that attempts to improve it "must not use people's health care as leverage or as a bargaining chip."

"To do so would be to strike at the heart of human dignity and the fundamental right to health care. The poor and vulnerable will bear the brunt of such an approach," he wrote Oct. 14.

Bishop Dewane, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, stated the USCCB "will closely monitor the implementation and impacts of this executive order by the relevant administrative agencies."

He stated flexible options for people to obtain health coverage are important strategies but he also cautioned that "great care must be taken to avoid risk of additional harm to those who now receive health care coverage through exchanges formed under the Affordable Care Act."

He also noted that the order "ignores many more significant problems in the nation's health care system," stressing that Congress must still act on comprehensive reform that would provide a framework for health care as well as solutions for conscience, immigrant access, market stability and underlying affordability problems which he said continue to be unaddressed.

Trump has said the lower health insurance premiums will allow more consumers to buy health insurance through association health plans across state lines. His order also plans to lift limits on short-term health care plans and directs agencies to write new rules.

Some experts are saying Trump's order could destabilize the Affordable Care Act markets as cheaper but less effective plans drive people away. Health insurance companies have said that without the payment subsidies, they will either have to increase premiums or get out of the individual markets.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has estimated that the health care order would cause a 12 to 15 percent increase in premium costs and the Congressional Budget Office has put that figure at 20 percent. 

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