VIDEO: Birth control debate impacts thousands of employees locally

Some of the region’s largest employers are among those affected by new rules for religious nonprofits that don’t want to offer birth control benefits for their workers.

Last week, the Obama administration announced its eighth revision to a mandate under the nation’s health reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that requires all insurance plans to offer birth control coverage at no cost to policy holders.

The new measures hit home in Cincinnati, where religious nonprofits - including the region's largest health systems - employ more than 30,000 workers.

Among the religious groups not affected locally are more than 100 Catholic high schools, which have roughly 6,000 employees who do not receive birth control benefits. The insurance plan covering these workers falls into one of just a few categories that allow exemptions from covering certain benefits otherwise required under the ACA.

The new rules handed down last week allow religious nonprofits to notify the government, rather than their insurance companies, if they don’t want to provide birth control coverage. Doing so paves the way for a third-party insurer to offer the birth control coverage for those employees who want it.

The move was an attempt to address concerns from religious critics who argue that requiring a nonprofit to contact its insurer about its objection to the benefit still triggers coverage for birth control.  Groups opposed to the mandate have filed nearly 50 lawsuits nationwide.

Critics of the rule have argued that religious nonprofits be treated just as churches and places of worship, which are fully exempt from the requirement to provide birth control coverage.

So far, the most high-profile objectors have stopped short of saying the new measures quell their concerns.

“It’s just really unfortunate that the government continues to play this game,” said Daniel Blomberg, an attorney with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The DC-based law firm successfully defended Hobby Lobby against the ACA’s birth control requirement.  “The government had a very easy way to make all the lawsuits go away by providing (religious nonprofits) with exempt status. Now, the moral analysis is still something ministries have to right out.”

As for Catholic high schools, the Archdiocese of  Cincinnati does not own and operate all 113 schools in the region, but  most are insured through the same insurance plan, said spokesman Dan Andriacco.

That plan is considered “grandfathered,” an allowance the ACA has made for insurance plans purchased before March 23, 2010. Those plans don’t have to comply with the ACA’s mandate that 10 essential benefits be covered, including birth control.

However, any major changes made to the plan in the future will trigger a requirement for compliance to the ACA in the future.

Meanwhile, Greater Cincinnati is also home to a growing nonprofit health care sector that includes major health systems with religious affiliations, including Mercy Health,  TriHealth, The Christ Health Network and St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Northern Kentucky.

Collectively, those nonprofits employ more than 24,000 people. 

Mercy Health, which has more than 8,200 employees locally and more than 28,000 across Ohio,  uses “a third party insurer to ensure compliance with the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandates,” said spokeswoman Maureen Richmond.

“This enables us to maintain adherence to Catholic teaching on contraception,” she added.

Starting July 1, TriHealth, with more than 11,500 employees,  began offering insurance that covered birth control for all of its employees  of its Bethesda and TriHealth hospitals and networks. A spokesman for TriHealth said employees of its Good Samaritan Hospital have access to the coverage if they want it, through Humana which serves as its third-party provider.

The Christ Hospital Health Network, which was founded by the Methodist Church but is now nondenominational, says it offers plans that include birth control coverage to its more than 5,000 employees.

Officials with St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Northern Kentucky did not respond to requests for information.

Also affected are local universities including Xavier University,  Mount St. Joseph and Thomas More College in Crestview Hills.

Jill Eichorn, a spokeswoman at Mount St. Joseph, said the college offers  a “fully insured health insurance program for our faculty and staff that is complaint with current mandates.”

Officials with Xavier said the university's plan, which includes birth control benefits, covers about 1,000 employees. A spokeswoman at Thomas More said the college was working to clarify its coverage options.

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