Capitol Alert

Catholic group challenges California abortion coverage

A California skirmish in a national clash over religious objections to health care coverage flared on Wednesday, with a Catholic group challenging a policy requiring abortion coverage.

A letter from the California Catholic Conference to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assailed a California Department of Managed Health Care directive instructing seven major insurance companies that they must cover voluntary abortions because the procedure constitutes basic health care.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights said the organization is reviewing the complaint.

Leaders at two Jesuit colleges, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, spurred an outcry and opened rifts within their respective faculties when they voted last year to not provide coverage for elective abortions. Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California got involved and urged the state to reverse a 2008 decision creating an exemption allowing some plans to preclude abortions.

“Faculty of both of those institutions contacted us,” said Beth Parker, chief legal counsel for Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, adding that ultimately the state “basically reiterated long-standing California law.”

According to Catholic bishops, California unfairly targeted the two schools, changing course under “pressure from power political interests.” A group representing Catholic hospitals released a letter praising the bishops’ salvo and arguing that California’s order was discriminatory.

“This action effectively precludes California citizens and employers, who conscientiously believe that abortion destroys an unborn human life, from exercising their freedom to purchase a health plan that excludes coverage for abortions in which the life or health of the mother is not actually at risk,” the Catholic group’s challenge says.

The action is not a lawsuit but the opening step in an administrative proceeding. The California Catholic Conference hopes to persuade the federal government to have California rescind its order by arguing that federal law requires preserving access to insurance that does not include abortions. If the administrative tack fails, the group could file a lawsuit.

“The issue isn’t culture wars over abortion,” Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the group, said in an email. “The issue is a state agency out of compliance with federal law that requires a health plan be available for purchase that doesn’t include coverage for abortion.”

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