Faith-based health insurance plan generates controversy

When the Office of Personnel Management held a press conference on the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program several months ago, the big news was the 7.9 percent average increase in health insurance premiums.

A smaller portion of that press conference is now generating controversy and angst. On Sept. 13, OPM officials announced the launch of a faith-based health insurance program for federal workers in Illinois. Operated by OSF Health, which is run by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, the plan specifically will prohibit payment for contraceptives, abortions, sterilization or artificial insemination.

OPM officials have sought to portray the OSF Health plan as just one of many options. Ann Easton, a senior policy analyst at OPM, said 2005 will see "almost 250 choices across the country." She said previous federal health offerings have restricted payments for contraceptives, and this plan is notable only because it includes a high deductible plan with the heavily promoted Health Savings Accounts.

Pro-life and pro-choice groups, however, see the situation a little differently. Both are touting the OSF plan as an example-of either a strong step forward in federal health care or a blurring of the line between church and state.

"All of a sudden the officials at the so-called pro-choice organization feel threatened by some Catholic nuns and want to deny federal workers freedom of choice," said Catholic League President William Donohue, who specifically targeted Planned Parenthood with his criticism.

Pro-choice and civil liberties groups protested the move-saying it is unacceptable for the federal government to promote and offer a health care plan that adheres to one specific religious doctrine.

"We are very concerned that this approach raises issues about an improper entanglement between government and religion," said Lorie Chaiten, the director of the reproductive rights project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "There's definitely a reason for concern. We are concerned based on the whole faith-based initiative thinking with this administration."

Susanne Martinez, vice president of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, contends the Bush administration is attempting to do away with contraceptive coverage for the entire FEHBP.

"This is, in effect, a kind of backdoor way to try to limit this [coverage] down the road, to try to get family planning services out of the program" Martinez said. "You shouldn't be designing government health programs based on religious doctrine."

The Catholic League says protests against the plan are a sign of desperation.

"Planned Parenthood is afraid the OSF Health plans initiative might catch on, which is why they'd like to kill it now," Donohue said. "Having just lost to President Bush-Planned Parenthood Action Fund supported Senator Kerry-the abortion-friendly group fears the country is turning against them. It is."

Louis Giovino, director of communications for the Catholic League, echoed the OPM statements on the plan.

"It's a good step, choice. What's wrong with choice?" he said. "Why can't there be choice. It's not mandatory."

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