Today is the deadline to file comments on the HHS Mandate Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Among the many groups commenting today are the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their comments filed today are available here, and their prior statements on the HHS Mandate are available here and here.
As this 2005 Wall Street Journal article explains, the Little Sisters of the Poor have “an odd business plan” for their homes for the elderly poor: “Beg for help, lavish it on residents.” But more confounding than the Little Sisters’ business plan is the idea that the federal government would force them to arrange their health coverage for their homes’ employees to ensure coverage of female sterilization and the free flow of all FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs and devices.
President Obama is a college sports fan, but he should know better than to think that the Little Sisters of the Poor are simply “a euphemism in college sports to describe a weak opponent.” The Little Sisters are real; the HHS Mandate burdens their religious exercise; and the Obama Administration has the power to lift that burden. Lifting that burden is also the President’s duty under federal law.
Some excerpts from the comments:
The Little Sisters of the Poor are an international Congregation of Catholic women religious serving 13,000 needy elderly people of all faiths in thirty-one countries around the world. Thirty of our homes for the aged, which together care for over 2,500 elderly poor, are located in the United States. We are filing these comments because the HHS Mandate threatens the operation of these homes. After the safe harbor ends, we may be subjected to steep financial penalties for not changing our health coverage arrangements at these homes to ensure coverage of female sterilization and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including abortifacient drugs and devices.
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Each of our homes is a separate corporate entity that files an annual Form 990 for purposes of compliance with the tax code. Because each home is a “large employer” under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and is not exempt from filing under the Code provision that currently defines the scope of the proposed “religious employer” exemption, the group health plan offered by each home is not exempt from the HHS Mandate under the proposed exemption.
The fact that we have separately incorporated the homes in which we carry out our ministry to the elderly poor does not deprive our order’s religious exercise of its religious nature. Saint Jeanne Jugan, our foundress and the first Little Sister of the Poor, began her ministry by bringing an elderly and infirm woman into her own apartment and caring for her there. Since 1839, we have continued this tradition with our homes, which now operate in one of the most highly regulated segments of care providers. We have always done our best to comply with all government regulations that apply to our homes and with the highest standards of nonprofit financial stewardship. The Form 990 is an important tool for financial accountability in our religious charitable work, but it makes no sense to use the requirement to file it as a disqualifier for the religious employer exemption.
The Little Sisters of the Poor should receive a religious exemption based on what we believe and what we do rather than the corporate forms through which we carry out our ministry. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking observes that a church should not lose its exemption simply because it “maintains a soup kitchen that provides free meals to low-income individuals.” We agree. The same should hold true for our religious order. We should not be deprived of an exemption because we maintain homes to provide shelter and loving care to the elderly poor.
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Although our homes qualify as “eligible organizations,” the proposed accommodation in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking does not address the situation that they face under the HHS Mandate. The Notice identifies three alternative ways in which the third-party administrator of a self-insured plan might be made responsible for arranging the objectionable coverage. Each of these alternatives presupposes that the third-party administrator itself has no religious objection to arranging that coverage. But Christian Brothers Services, as another Catholic organization, shares our commitment to Catholic teaching and also objects to the HHS Mandate. Accordingly, the proposed accommodation does not offer us a path to compliance.
The federal government should not force us to counteract through the health benefits that we arrange for our employees the very same Gospel of Life that we attempt to live out in communion and solidarity with the needy elderly.
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The Little Sisters of the Poor support the expanded exemption advocated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. We hope that it is unnecessary for us to join the scores of employers that have already resorted to the federal courts for protection. But we are only one group among hundreds who will be adversely affected by the HHS Mandate and we respectfully request the Departments to reach a just resolution that respects the religious freedom and conscience rights of all.