Cardinal Timothy M Dolan and Bishop William Murphy addresses Long...

Cardinal Timothy M Dolan and Bishop William Murphy addresses Long Island Catholics in Hicksville. (March 3, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

The Obama administration's plan to mandate birth-control coverage in health insurance could extend such benefits to thousands of employees of Long Island's Catholic-run institutions, and church officials want it stopped.

Some of the employees, including those at two Catholic Long Island colleges, already get contraceptive coverage under state law. But the federal mandate would be more sweeping and have fewer exceptions.

Employees of Catholic hospitals would be among those newly eligible to receive free contraceptive coverage under the proposed regulations as they now stand. Final details are being worked out by the administration.

"While here in New York we've been living under a state mandate for a decade, a new federal mandate will only make things worse by requiring even some institutions that did not fall under the state law to provide the insurance coverage," said Dennis Proust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops.

Catholic bishops and congressional Republicans have been trying to derail the plan, which is part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and is intended to expand women's access to free preventive health services, including contraception. It would take effect in August 2013.

"Nearly 99 percent of all women have used contraception at some point in their lives, but more than half of all women between the ages of 18-34 struggle to afford it," said a White House statement.


Issue of religious liberty

Catholic leaders, including Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, say that forcing religious institutions to provide the service against their beliefs violates religious liberty.

"The First Amendment, conscience protection and the right to religious freedom and its exercise are too valuable, too inalienable, too God-given, too essential for human freedom and dignity for us to let this mandate become the law of the land," Murphy wrote in the Long Island Catholic, the diocese's newspaper.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York last week joined Murphy at a conference at Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville to speak against the measure.

"This is a question of government intrusion into the interior life of the church," Dolan said.

The uproar began in January when the Obama administration unveiled its plan to mandate free contraceptive coverage in health insurance for employees of businesses and not-for-profit institutions, including many religious ones. Only the churches themselves and employers that are primarily religious in nature, such as K-12 schools with a predominantly Catholic student body, would remain exempt.

To try to mollify critics, Obama modified the plan Feb. 10 so if a hospital or charity has "a religious objection," the employee can get the coverage directly from the insurer. The idea was to give the institutions distance from the coverage, but not further limit who gets it.

"Access to contraception is just good health policy and I'm very happy that he [Obama] has stood firm behind his policy," said JoAnn Smith, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Nassau County.

The bishops rejected the compromise.


State requires coverage

Since 2003, the New York State Contraceptive Equity Law has required employers to provide contraception services in their health plans, with exceptions for churches, parishes and other strictly religious institutions.

Religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals, charities and colleges are not exempt. But they have ways to avoid the state requirement.

One is to have a self-funded insurance plan in which the employer collects premiums from employees and pays for claims itself, while hiring an insurance company to administer it. The Diocese of Rockville Centre is self-insured, said spokesman Sean Dolan. So is the 15,000-employee Catholic Health Service of Long Island -- which runs six Long Island hospitals along with nursing homes and other care facilities -- and Catholic Charities, which has about 600 employees, Dolan said.


No shield from federal law

Self-funding plans, however, would not shield them from the proposed federal regulation. "Our agencies that are part of self-insured plans are now going to be forced into the same boat as everybody else and will have to provide" contraceptive insurance, said Proust of the state Catholic conference.

Catholic hospital workers said their insurance does not now include contraceptives.

"With what we have, they are not covered," said Debbie Viggiano, head of the bargaining unit for the nurses' union at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown.

While not a top issue among nurses in contract negotiations, Viggiano said, "I'm sure there are a lot of young nurses who consider it important."

Catholic-affiliated institutions on Long Island cope with the requirements on contraceptives that clash with church teachings in a variety of ways.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in Wyandanch is owned by Suffolk County but run and largely staffed by Good Samaritan Hospital of West Islip. But a separate family planning section that provides contraceptive services is staffed by county employees.

Molloy College in Rockville Centre and St. Joseph's College in Patchogue said they provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance to comply with the state law. Molloy did not use self-insurance because it is not feasible financially, it said. St. Joseph's did not specify a reason.

Neither college provides contraceptive services on campus.

Molloy "does not provide prescriptions of any kind; employees and staff must obtain prescriptions from their personal physicians," the college said in a statement.


A look at President Obama's plan on contraceptive services:


A new regulation would require most employers' health insurance plans to provide free contraceptive services for women employees.

Strictly religious organizations such as churches and local parishes would be exempt from the federal rule.

Religiously affiliated institutions such as Catholic hospitals, charities and colleges would not be exempt.

In a change from his proposal in January, Obama's latest plan would not require the religiously affiliated institutions to pay for the contraceptive services through their insurance plans. Instead, the insurance companies themselves would pay for it.

Thousands of Catholic hospital and charities workers on Long Island who previously did not have contraceptive services included in their health insurance plan could be eligible for it under the new rule.

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