Faith Under Fire: Sebelius Jumps the Gun

So much for the HHS public comment process.

On the final day public comments were being accepted about proposed revisions to a hotly contested HHS rule, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told participants in a livestreamed propaganda presentation — err, healthcare forum — that the rule would take effect August 1.

The rule requiring that nearly all employer-paid insurance policies cover temporary and permanent sterilization, as well as “morning after” pills, caused a firestorm when it was announced seemingly out of nowhere. (The result of a line added to the Affordable Care Act requiring that “preventative care” for women be covered without cost to the insured person, itself an addition to a line requiring that preventative services for children be covered without cost, the rule was added after a panel of experts appointed by HHS declared all FDA-approved contraceptives and sterilization procedures to be essential “preventative care.”)

The only exemptions to this requirement were religious institutions — a category the HHS defined so narrowly that it did not include dioceses, religious colleges, or church-owned charities. Even monasteries and convents would not be included under the definition.

Private businesses were also not included. A series of First Amendment lawsuits from companies owned by devoutly religious people, including the world’s largest publisher of English-language Bibles and numerous companies that hold regular prayer services for employees, employ chaplains, donate to religious charities, and include following Biblical principle in their mission statements, have followed.

In February, the HHS announced what it called an “accommodation” to religious entities. While the proposed rule slightly broadened the definition of exempted employers — although it changed nothing for private businesses — it simultaneously ensured that nearly every woman in America would be given free temporary and permanent sterilizations, as well as drugs that can induce a very early abortion.

The “accommodation” managed this feat by mandating that all employees of exempted organizations be issued a separate policy for those items, one that would be administered and paid for by insurance companies. HHS has yet to say how it can legally tell insurance companies that they must give away and administer insurance plans for free — and why, if it can, it doesn’t do so for life-threatening conditions.

Secretary of U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius

Secretary of U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius

Secretary Sebelius handled the ensuing outcry the way she has every other objection to the HHS’s self-appointed “sterilize all women — for free!” mission: by ignoring it. Following US government guidelines, the HHS set a deadline for public comments on the rule changes, which officials would in theory read and take into consideration before issuing the final rule.

The comments were due April 8. According to the Washington Times, the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group said that the rule had received more than 147,000 public comments, more public comments than any other regulatory proposal of any type, ever. However, the paper also reported that the National Women’s Law Center and Planned Parenthood Federation of America claim to have dwarfed those comments by submitting nearly 350,000 more that day.

With friends like those, Sebelius can claim to be reacting to the will of the people if the rule doesn’t change. And maybe she will. But she jumped the gun when she told attendees and viewers of the forum on healthcare moderated by Reuters and held at the Harvard School of Public Health that “as of Aug. 1, 2013, every employee who doesn’t work directly for a church or a diocese will be included in the benefit package.”

Comments, schmomments. The statement showed exactly what Secretary Sebelius and the Obama administration thinks of the public commenting process, of the American people who sent in tens of thousands of comments, and of the Constitution of the United States.

While suits against the HHS have won injunctions against the rule in many courts, other courts around the country have ruled that such suits have no standing because the law hasn’t gone into effect yet, the plaintiffs haven’t yet been harmed, and the government may change the law so that they have nothing to complain about.

As of this month, that doesn’t look likely.

If Kathleen Sebelius is any indication, the US government is ready and willing to fight in as many courts as it has to to ensure that American women will be able to sterilize themselves in any way they like, and at their employers’ expense. It’s not unreasonable to assume, because of the HHS insistence on including “morning after” and “week after” pills, that  employers will be expected to pay for their employees’ abortions next. The argument for that will be hard to fight: Once you agree to pay for one kind of abortion, HHS will argue, you’ve agreed in principle to pay for any kind.

They’ll be fighting those suits with our tax money, our lawyers, and our officials.

“As of Aug. 1, 2013, every employee who doesn’t work directly for a church or a diocese will be included in the benefit package,” Sebelius said, as the comments were still coming in.

“Why this charade of asking the public for comments?” asked Eric Sheidler, Executive Director of the Pro-Life Action League. “We’ve seen this again and again and again from the Obama administration. At the end of the day, the Obama administration is going to force this kind of funding of contraception on all people — regardless of what people say, regardless of what the Constitution says, and regardless of being sued by scores of employers.”

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Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

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