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Hobby Lobby lawsuit exposes double standard: column

Politics and money speak louder than faith.

5:19 PM, Dec. 19, 2013  |  Comments
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In the course of pushing millions of individuals off their old insurance plans, the Obama administration pointed out that new Obamacare plans would have more benefits such as free birth control. But that wasn't the whole story.

Even as birth control coverage became mandatory and the administration fights to the Supreme Court to force compliance, The Washington Post reports that insurers "have pared their drug benefits significantly." While your plan must always cover cheap birth control pills, you better read the fine print to make sure the plan covers expensive drugs for grave afflictions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis or HIV.

Flexibility for greed

Advocates for people with AIDS fear that insurers are using "discriminatory plan designs ... to deter certain people from enrolling." But insurers point out that they "must restrict the use of some costly drugs," in order to "keep premiums low."

So what is the Obama administration's response to these allegations? A shrug. A Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman suggested that people could "ask insurers for an exception" to cover the drugs. Last month, HHS cleared the way for patients to receive financial assistance from drug companies, when insurance won't pay enough.

It is hard to believe that this is the same agency litigating Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius before the Supreme Court. The Greens, anevangelical Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, and the Hahns, a Mennonite family that owns Conestoga Wood, offer employee health coverage that complies with the Affordable Care Act in every way but one: Faith forbids them from paying for contraceptives that can cause early abortions, such as the morning-after pill. Because they do not cover four of 20 FDA-approved contraceptives, HHS seeks crippling penalties on their businesses.

Hard line on religion

The government has other ways of providing contraceptives. For instance, by creating a tax credit or expanding its own contraceptive distribution or allowing drugmakers to assist patients directly.

HHS has rejected these options. Pharmaceutical company assistance is good enough for HIV drugs, but not for contraceptives. Insurers can charge prohibitively high "co-insurance" rates for MS drugs, but the abortion-causing drugs must be free.

So why no flexibility for religious objections? It is not as if the Obama administration refuses to grant exceptions. To keep the president's illusory promise that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it," HHS exempted insurance companies from dozens of rules, including the mandate, if they would renew old plans for an additional year.

In short, if an insurance company doesn't provide coverage for expensive drugs because it will make coverage seem cheaper, fine. If a plan doesn't cover birth control because canceling non-compliant insurance plans would be politically embarrassing, fine too.

However, if employers such as the Greens and the Hahns have a deep religious objection to paying for drugs that can cause early abortions, that does not warrant even the slightest exemption from federal rules.

Political capital and cost control are values Washington respects. Religious freedom and rights of conscience don't get the same treatment.

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