Healthcare Business News

Lawmakers urged to revise definition of religious employer in preventive-services rule

By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: November 2, 2011 - 6:00 pm ET

HHS' interim final rule on preventive services for women led House lawmakers to examine whether the new mandates threaten both conscience rights and access to healthcare services.

“HHS needs to drastically revise its definition of religious employer because that definition arbitrarily excludes Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies in terms of the exemption—the religious exemption—in the preventive services reg,” William Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance for Catholic Health Care, said after the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. “And that's going to create huge problems for us.”

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Released in early August, an interim final rule from HHS requires new health plans to provide a host of preventive services—without a copay, coinsurance or a deductible—that includes annual visits, contraception, breastfeeding support and domestic-violence screening. The rule followed the July recommendations of the Institute of Medicine.

HHS allowed an exemption for religious employers, but Cox testified that the definition is too narrow and raises the question of whether the federal government can determine what parts of a religious organization are religious and which are secular. But witness Dr. Mark Hathaway, an obstetrician and gynecologist who is director of OB/GYN outreach services for Women’s and Infants’ Services at Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center, praised the rule, saying that for every $1 in preventive services for women, about $4 is saved.

After the hearing, Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said he expects to move forward with the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), that would address the regulations that mandate private plans cover sterilization and contraceptive services. The Pennsylvania Republican—who did not specify a date on any subcommittee action for that legislation—also expressed concern with the manner in which HHS released its regulation on preventive services for women.

“The normal procedure would be to have time for public comment,” Pitts said. “They decided not to do that. I think the reason is probably the beginning of school year so this would be up and running at that time,” he added, referring to the rule's release before college students returned to campus. “I met with the secretary of HHS privately to see if there was any kind of willingness on their part to negotiate more reasonable regulation. They were not willing,” he added. “They're pressing forward, so we had the hearing and will act on the legislation at an appropriate time.”

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