The Obama Administration has tried yet again to address the concerns of religious schools, charities, and businesses who morally object to the mandate to provide comprehensive contraceptive health insurance coverage. Given that scores of plaintiffs have pending lawsuits across the country, there has been great pressure on the Administration to exempt dissenters from the mandate.
In the beginning, proponents of the mandate cited several state-level laws that were similar. It's true, a handful of states have mandated the inclusion of birth control in health insurance coverage for a long time. But these state laws included exemptions; the federal law did not.
The most recent attempt at compromise clearly aims to provide an exemption, but falls short. For Obama, this is a difficult balancing act as he tries to avoid exposing his signature law to yet another appearance at the Supreme Court. On the other hand, his political allies include powerful women's groups who will not be content until every woman in the U.S. can "access" birth control at no cost.
"Under the proposed accommodations, the eligible organizations would not have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.
In addition, under the proposed accommodations, plan participants would receive contraceptive coverage through separate individual health insurance policies, without cost sharing or additional premiums. The issuer would work to ensure a seamless process for plan participants to receive contraceptive coverage."
So, women who work for religious employers can still have coverage that provides for birth control. The women won't pay for it, and their employers won't pay for it. Essentially, the federal government will incentivize insurers to offer the stand-alone contraception coverage by reducing a user fee they'd otherwise pay in 2014 in order to sell insurance in federally-operated health insurance exchanges. (So, taxpayers will pick up the tab – surprise!)
Birth control is a consumer good, and someone has to pay for it. Sharing this expense (whether through employers, insurance pools, or the greater pool of government money) is misguided for moral reasons: People simply don't agree on whether contraception (or which types) is moral, and people shouldn't be forced to fund a drug they find unconscionable. But sharing birth control expenses is misguided economically as well. It means prices will go up, and drug companies will reap the benefit. We (women consumers) simply won't see prices going up, because they'll be hidden to us through the pipeline of money that flows from us and our employers to insurance companies to drug companies and so on. A statement from a Department of Health and Human Services official struck me as particularly revealing:
"Women who work or go to school at these institutions will have free contraceptive coverage and will no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could be going to rent or groceries."
If paying for birth control together is really the most cost-effective way to afford a common expense, then why doesn't the government set up a fund for a similar "grocery mandate?" That way employers could pay into a pool, and no one would pay a bill upon checking out at their local grocery store. Obviously, this would be ridiculous. We do have government programs like food stamps that are intended to provide for the indigent in society, but certainly we'd never attempt to pay for everyone's food collectively. That's because we all have different preferences and price points we are comforable with. I'd never buy store-brand groceries if I didn't have my own bill. I'd get Pillsbury, or Kraft, or other higher quality (and slightly more expensive) brand-name foods. It will be the same with birth control… Who wants a generic pill for free when the fancy brands are also free?
But aside from the economic arguments against the birth control mandate, the moral issue will continue despite Friday's suggested rule change. The new rule would only exempt employers who are affiliated with a church or religious denomination. This still doesn't provide relief for the many privately owned businesses (such as Hobby Lobby) that are owned by Christians but not affiliated with a church.
The main problem here is that clearly the Obama Administration does not understand or recognize religious beliefs to be a driving force in the lives of people beyond the churchyard where they attend. Christians are not just Christians on Sundays. The idea (although the Bible makes it clear that we all fail at this daily) is to take every thought and every action captive to our Christian faith. It is a creed that directs our life from dawn to dusk everyday, from the way we conduct our business affairs, to the way we interact socially, to the way we perform family duties, to the way we serve our communities.
The Administration should provide relief by allowing any employer to take a moral objection to the mandate and escape its misguided rules. Better yet, the Administration should move away from this approach altogether, recognizing the mandate doesn't make economic sense for anyone.