San Francisco — The California Catholic Conference has filed a federal civil rights complaint protesting a state ruling mandating the inclusion of voluntary direct abortion -- including gender selection and late-term abortion -- in California health insurance policies.
"This is a coercive and discriminatory action by the state of California," said Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy of San Francisco, who is chair of the Institutional Concerns Committee of the California Catholic Conference, the public advocacy arm of the state's bishops.
The ruling violates the Weldon Amendment, a federal law enacted in 2005 to protect the conscience rights of institutions and individuals, the Catholic conference stated in a complaint filed Tuesday with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"For the first time in California -- indeed, for the first time anywhere in the United States -- health plans are now required, as a matter of regulatory fiat, to cover all legal abortions, even late-term abortions, for any reason," the conference said in the letter of complaint.
"The state has robbed the freedom of the individuals and employers who object to abortion to buy coverage which does not include unrestricted abortion, including gender selection and late-term abortion," McElroy said.
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All Californians who purchase or receive health insurance through state-licensed health insurance companies are affected by the Aug. 22 administrative ruling by the California Department of Managed Health Care.
The Department of Managed Health Care issued its administrative ruling after abortion advocacy groups complained when Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University altered their health insurance plans this year to exclude voluntary abortion coverage. In 2008 and in 2012, the state agency had approved health plans for Catholic institutional employers that excluded coverage for voluntary abortions, the California Catholic Conference letter noted.
All state-licensed health insurance includes coverage of abortion in cases where the life of the mother is in danger.
In an email Wednesday, the Department of Managed Health Care told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper: "We won't be providing comment beyond what is in the letters" the agency sent to insurance companies. Those letters state that under the California Reproductive Privacy Act and multiple California judicial decisions, women have "the fundamental right to choose to either bear a child or to have an abortion."
The Sacramento-based Alliance of Catholic Health Care, representing the 41 Catholic health care systems and hospitals in the state, applauded the California bishops' action, and in a statement joined them in urging the HHS Office of Civil Rights "to commence an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation of the DMHC's Aug. 22, 2014, directive."
Jim Lyons, vice president of university relations at Santa Clara, issued a statement noting it was not a party to the complaint by the California Catholic Conference but stating the Department of Managed Health Care had "reversed its prior position permitting limitations on voluntary abortions."
However, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount universities have both said they would comply with the state agency's administrative ruling.
The state Department of Managed Health Care's Aug. 22 letter to the heads of eight different health insurance plans ordered them to amend their current health plans and remove any exclusions regarding voluntary abortions on the basis that abortion for any reason was "basic health care" and could not be excluded. The directive was issued to Aetna, Anthem/Blue Cross, Blue Shield of California, GEM Care, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare.
The HHS Office of Civil Rights can cut off federal funds to California until it stops discriminatory practices, according to the California Catholic Conference.
An amendment to 2005 Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill, Weldon states: "None of the funds available in this act may be made available to a federal agency or program, or to a state or local government, if such agency, program, or government subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions."
The statute specifically defines "health care entity" to include health insurance plans.
[Valerie Schmalz is assistant editor of Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the San Francisco archdiocese.]