Conservative and centrist congressional Democrats are joining the chorus of voices urging President Barack Obama to reverse or modify a decision made by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to not exempt health insurance plans sponsored by religious-affiliated employers from the requirement to provide contraception as part of their basic benefit package.
Under the 2010 health care law, Congress gave Sebelius the power define the minimum essential benefits package in most of the nation’s health insurance plans.
Most of the outrage over the decision has come from religious groups and Republicans but some Democrats are uneasy as well. Sen. Bob Casey, D- Pa., said Tuesday morning he hadn’t yet gotten a response to his letter to Obama asking him to reverse Sebelius’s decision, but “it’s something I’m sure we’ll be having further discussions with the administration about,” he said,
Obama political advisor David Axelrod said on MSNBC Tuesday, “This is an important issue … We want to resolve it in an appropriate way and we’re going to do that.”
Speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, said on Jan. 20, the day Sebelius made her announcement, that the administration had "ordered almost every employer and insurer in the country to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in their health plans.”
Meanwhile some congressional Democrats were working behind the scenes Tuesday to persuade Obama to reverse course; some warned of a potential threat to the president’s re-election chances in states with large Catholic populations such as Pennsylvania, where Catholics accounted for a third of the electorate according to 2008 exit polls.
It’s not clear how much of an effect the controversy will have on the estimated 47 percent of self-identified Catholic voters who said they supported for Obama in 2008.
But some Democratic supporters of Obama and of his health care law were emphatic in their opposition to the choice the administration had made.
“It’s a question of whether or not we’re going to allow -- as we should -- an institution that has a religious mission to make decisions that are consistent with their faith tradition,” Casey said. “Unfortunately what this does is impose upon them rules that I don’t think we should impose upon an institution that has a faith mission.”
Casey said he wants to preserve women’s access to contraception. “There’s a way to do this, and not run afoul of the religious freedoms that I think an institution should be able to exercise,” he said. “I think we can get this balance right … It means working out a compromise that makes sense to everybody.”
Casey is running for a second term this year.
Republicans may try to put the issue to a vote in the House and Senate. But that could end up benefiting Democrats who seek to distance themselves Obama on this issue by giving them a chance to show their opposition.
Another Democratic senator up for re-election this November, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said Tuesday afternoon, she didn’t know if the administration would change its position.
“I think they are going to look at various options. I haven’t talked to anyone in the administration about this … about whether or not there’s a way to find something similar to what they’ve done in Hawaii where there’s a rider” -- an add-on to an insurance policy -- and “the costs are so de minimis that it doesn’t in any way punish the women who want to access birth control.”
She added, “I’m hopeful they can work out a situation with riders, like they have in Hawaii, that might work out in these instances. Keep in mind there are a lot of Catholic hospitals and universities that are dealing with this right now and have been for a number of years.”
She said those opposed abortion “need to quit putting barriers” to women’s access to birth control. “We should be trying very hard to give women universal access to birth control” without them having to pay for it themselves.
Asked about the Catholic bishops’ statement that some contraceptives may cause abortion, McCaskill said, “I’m somebody who believes the morning after pill is particularly important, especially for rape victims.” She said she was “someone has spent a lot of time in the courtroom prosecuting rape cases,” as a former attorney in Missouri.
Another Democratic Senate candidate, Rep. Joe Donnelly, D- Ind., who also voted for the Affordable Care Act, said he was “puzzled” by the Sebelius decision. “I’ve sent my position to the White House.”
Sebelius gave nonprofits who, based on religious beliefs, don’t provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan until August 2013 to comply.