Catholic hospitals challenge health reform provision

Lawsuits, including those from faith-based hospitals, against the reform law's contraception mandate could be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, according to legal experts.

Although Catholic health systems generally applauded the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act last summer, according to the Catholic Health Association, there's one key provision that may be too hard to swallow--the contraceptive mandate.

"I think, out of all the requirements, that's the one that gives us the most pause," Julie Stark Manas (pictured), president and CEO of the Western Wisconsin division of Hospital Sisters Health System in Eau Claire, told FierceHealthcare.

It's a pressing issue not only for the Catholic health system as a whole, but for individual employees who also have expressed concern with the requirement.

"They have chosen to work at a Catholic institution and understand--either because of their own values or the system's … that is something that would cause us a lot of angst," Manas said.

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers must provide health insurance that covers contraception, including sterilization procedures, morning-after pills and intrauterine devices, The New York Times reported.

President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered a compromise last year, in which the administration relaxed the mandate for "religious employers," which are nonprofits under federal tax laws, have religious values in their purpose and primarily employ and serve people of those religious tenets. However, some employers do not fit perfectly in those criteria, which has resulted in conflicting rulings across the country with different interpretations of the law.

"The circuits have split. You're getting different, conflicting interpretations of law, so the line of cases will have to go to the Supreme Court," Carl Esbeck, a University of Missouri law professor, told the Associated Press.

For Hospital Sisters Health System, a one-year waiver means the Wisconsin health system has another 12 months to figure out a way to comply with the law, yet follow its ethical and religious directives.

"It's not a one-of. It's not just Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis., that has an issue. It's virtually every Catholic entity that would be asked [to do the same]," Manas noted.

Half a dozen of the cases will likely be argued by this summer, perhaps in time for the Supreme Court's next term, the NYT reported.

For more information:
- here's the CHA statement from June
- read the AP article
- here's the NYT article

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