Wednesday, February 01, 2012

White House Press Secretary Responds To Bishops' Criticism of HHS Policy

At yesterday' White House press briefing (full text), Press Secretary Jay Carney engaged in a lengthy exchange with reporters on the Catholic Bishops' strong opposition to new rules under the Affordable Care Act requiring most health insurance policies to fully cover contraceptive services. Narrow exceptions for religious employers would not cover most Catholic schools and hospitals. (See prior posting). Here is a substantial part of the exchange in the press briefing:
Q: ... It was a pretty extraordinary situation on Sunday in parishes all across the country, individual priests were reading letters from their bishops in that particular parish that were pretty much denouncing the Obama administration about these provisions dealing with contraception, Catholic hospitals and whatnot in connection with the Affordable Care Act.  I guess my question would be, how does the administration justify having the federal government institute a law that basically forces people to violate their religious beliefs?
MR. CARNEY:  Well, that misrepresents actually ... the ... decision about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act....  The decision was made... after very careful consideration, and the administration believes that this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services.  We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.
It’s important -- to go to your point -- that this approach does not signal any change at all in the administration’s policy on conscience protections.  The President and this administration have previously expressed strong support for existing conscience protections, including those relating to health care providers.  That support continues.
I also would just note that our robust partnerships with the Catholic Church and other communities of faith will continue.  The administration has provided over $2 billion to Catholic organizations over the past three years in addition to numerous nonfinancial partnerships that promote healthy communities and serve the common good.
Q: The bishops are saying just the opposite.  They’re saying that basically if somebody is working in a Catholic hospital and they don’t cover contraception for their employees, that they’re in violation of federal law.  So I don’t understand how you’re saying that there are still conscience protections.  They would violate the law, wouldn’t they?
MR. CARNEY:  Well, this does not direct an individual to do anything, first of all.  The new guidelines require most private health plans to cover preventive services, including contraception, for women without charging a copay, coinsurance or deductible.
The guidelines were recommended by the nonpartisan, independent Institute of Medicine.  The administration also released a proposed regulation that allows nonprofit, religious employers that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services.
After reviewing comments from the public, the administration announced that the final rule on preventive health services will ensure that women with health insurance coverage will have access to the full range of recommended preventive services, including all FDA-approved forms of contraception.
And I would just note that we will work with religious groups during a transitional period to discuss their concerns.  But this decision was made after careful consideration by Secretary Sebelius, and we believe that the proposal strikes the appropriate balance between religious beliefs on the one hand and the need to increase access to important preventive services for women.
 Q    ...  [A] Democrat who’s Catholic, E.J. Dionne, wrote in The Washington Post yesterday that the President ... “utterly botched this policy.”  And he said he, “threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.” ....
MR. CARNEY:  ... Ed, all you’re pointing out is that there are people who disagree with the decision.  We understand that not everyone agrees with it.  All I can tell you is it was made after very careful consideration based on the need to balance those two issues and that the necessity to provide access to preventive services for women was an important consideration.
Q    What about the constitutional right to freedom of religion?...
MR. CARNEY:  I don’t believe there are any constitutional rights issues here, but I would refer you to others to discuss that.  ... I understand that there’s controversy ... and we will continue to work with religious groups to discuss their concerns.  But on the other side of this was the important need to provide access to women to the preventive services that they require....
Q    The bishop of Phoenix said Catholics shouldn’t comply with this law.  Will there be any consequences for not --
MR. CARNEY:  I’m the wrong guy to ask.