The rules, released in part in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s order in the Wheaton College case, which threw into doubt the current exemption process for religiously affiliated nonprofits, provide an alternative process for those institutions to follow in order to exempt themselves from providing contraceptive coverage for those employees and students who want it.
The rules start out by making the economic case for contraceptive coverage and the compelling government interest in equal access to health care before detailing the new accommodation process, which shifts the burden of coordinating coverage from third-party administrators to the federal government. According to the new rules, those objecting institutions can now send opt-out notification directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), rather than their third-party administrator. HHS and the Department of Labor (DOL) will then notify insurers and third-party notifiers of the objection so that those enrolled in health insurance plans of those organizations can receive separate coverage for contraceptive services, with no additional cost to the enrollee or the employer. The accommodation process also applies to student health plans like those at the University of Notre Dame. The rules also make it clear that plan participants can always decline contraceptive coverage.
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The administration also announced that it was beginning the process of addressing theHobby Lobby decision in crafting still another accommodation process. Along with the latest accommodation for religiously affiliated nonprofits, HHS will begin soliciting comments on how it might extend to certain closely held for-profit entities like Hobby Lobby the same accommodation that is available to religious nonprofits. Under the proposal, these companies “would not have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.”
The proposal also seeks comments on how to define a closely held for-profit company and whether other steps might be appropriate to implement this policy.
Those institutions challenging the birth control benefit are not likely to be satisfied by the administration’s latest attempts to address their objections given that they argue the very act of having to identify as a religious objector for purposes of receiving an accommodation to the law unduly burdens their religious beliefs, and many object to their employees accessing contraception at all. The new rule also presents some administrative challenges for HHS in oversight and compliance. Organizations simply need to notify HHS of their objection, and it will be up to HHS and the DOL to contact the insurers and coordinate that coverage.
In a previous court filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, the Obama administration asked that those institutions challenging the nonprofit accommodation notify the court by September 2 if they will continue with their legal challenges.
You may remember the Little Sisters of the Poor—that group of earnest nuns who challenged the process for accommodating religious objections to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters, along with dozens of other religiously affiliated nonprofits, have continuously argued that the act of completing a form to be legally excused from complying with the law substantially burdens their religious rights.
Well, the Little Sisters remain tied up in litigation with the Obama administration over birth control, nondiscriminatory insurance coverage, and their religious objections to providing for both. But there’s more at stake here. To be clear, the Sisters are intent on doing everything they can to block comprehensive insurance coverage for their employees, and block third parties from providing it to them as well. But buried in litigation footnotes is a provision of employee benefits law that, if the Sisters and other religiously affiliated organizations get their way, will solidify another pass for discriminatory corporate practices beyond contraception coverage alone.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is the federal law governing employee benefit plans, including retirement accounts and health insurance. Both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are charged with ensuring ERISA compliance, which, as you can imagine, makes ERISA a prime target for conservatives who already hate “big government.”
Employer plans governed by ERISA have a few requirements that particularly draw conservative ire. One mandates that employer-sponsored retirement plans meet certain minimum funding levels by the employer. This is to help those plans be meaningful ways for employees to save for retirement, without putting the entire burden on those workers. Another provision forbids those plans from discriminating in benefits, such as matching a higher percentage of a male employee’s retirement contributions than a female one’s, or providing comprehensive health insurance coverage for men but not women. The ACA’s birth control benefit draws upon this theory.
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However, not all employers are required to follow ERISA. In particular, the statute exempts “church plans” from its requirements. ERISA defines church plans as those “established and maintained … for its employees … by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax under section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Church plans also include those plans maintained by an organization “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” The rationale behind the church plan exemption is similar to the rationale behind most religious or ministerial exemptions to other nondiscrimination laws: Religious orders and institutions like churches and synagogues will generally employ people who follow the same religious tenets as they do because those organizations are engaged in spiritual outreach as part of their “business.”
That prohibition on ERISA governing “church plans” is also incorporated into the ACA.
Historically, organizations like the Little Sisters have had a regulatory pass when it came to maintaining retirement plans and insurance coverage that are either underfunded, discriminatory, or both. That’s because both the DOL and the IRS have been generous in their determination of how they interpret “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” And if those agencies determine that an organization has a “church plan,” that, in turn, means it won’t be subjected to a tax penalty for not complying with the ACA’s birth control benefit.
Given the explosion of religiously affiliated employers like hospitals and nursing homes, however, the scope of what does and does not qualify as a church plan has become an increasingly important issue. As religiously affiliated employers began to grow well beyond employing people of similar tenets, away from their ministerial core and into marketplace competition with secular, for-profit businesses, it has made less and less sense to allow those employers a pass to discriminate under ERISA.
At least that’s the argument advanced in a flurry of lawsuits challenging the scope of the church plan exemption under ERISA. Those lawsuits include one against Dignity Health Care, the Catholic-affiliated hospital system facing separate lawsuits related to failing to offer comprehensive reproductive health care at its hospitals. According to the allegations in the complaint, Dignity repeatedly underfunded its retirement plan in violation of ERISA. Dignity responded by arguing its plans were church plans and not subject to ERISA oversight.
Neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bought Dignity’s argument, holding there was no way that when Congress created the church plan exception, it intended the exemption to stretch as far as to shield the country’s fifth-largest health-care employer from regulatory oversight.
That question presented in the Dignity case—of just how broadly that exemption extends—could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court next term. The Roberts Court is considering a pair of cases with this exact issue at their center. Both involve religiously affiliated hospitals, and both have appellate court decisions ruling that organizations like Dignity, which are not actually churches nor actually maintained by religious orders, may not qualify for the church plan exemption.
Which brings us back to the Little Sisters, on whose cases these organizations will undoubtedly base some of their own arguments. The Little Sisters do have a church plan. And it should mean that they will never have to comply with the birth control benefit anyway—which would give them no standing to challenge the ACA’s accommodation. But this is not the argument the Little Sisters and their attorneys want the courts or the public to hear. Instead, the litigation has focused on whether or not completing the form for the birth control accommodation would be a substantial burden for the nuns, despite the fact that at this point under ERISA, there is no question that the federal government could penalize the Little Sisters for refusing to comply with the contraception benefit.
However, the Little Sisters are more than just a group of nuns. They own and operate facilities that employ and serve others. The DOL and IRS have, to date, agreed that the Little Sisters benefits plan is in fact a church plan. But that is in part because without switching plan administrators, the question of whether or not their employee benefits package still qualifies for the exemption has not arisen again. If and when the Little Sisters do switch plans or administrators, the status of their benefits exemption will come up.
At some point during oral arguments in March in Zubik v. Burwell, the conglomerate of cases challenging the accommodation process to the birth control benefit, the fact that the Little Sisters had a church plan and would never be subject to having to comply with the benefit did come up. Paul Clement, who represented the nuns, skillfully dodged the question of whether there was a church plan issue for the Little Sisters. Instead of acknowledging that fact—one even established in the record as an assumption the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was making earlier in the litigation to move the case along—Clement assured the justices the church plan wasn’t really something the Court needed to concern itself with at the moment.
Maybe that’s because Clement and the nuns were hoping that if nobody noticed the pass given Little Sisters in their challenge to the birth control benefit, nobody would notice when hospitals and nursing homes also argue for the right to provide discriminatory retirement benefits and cite Zubik for their authority to do so. Maybe they didn’t know about the fight brewing in the appellate courts over which enormous corporate entities are shielded from regulatory nondiscrimination laws like provisions in ERISA and the ACA.
That seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?
While it may be dry as toast, the church plan exemption under ERISA is critically important. As we’ve seen throughout the nonprofit challenges to the birth control benefit, when employers are allowed to opt out, the effect disproportionately falls on poor women and women of color. And the wages offered to hospital and nursing home workers? They hardly are the kind to lift a person up to more stable financial footing. Which is all another way to say that conservatives’ assertions that institutions like Dignity Health fulfill some spiritual mission and should therefore be treated like a church are all smoke and bluster. Instead, these institutions want cover for ongoing attempts to nickel-and-dime their own workers and to discriminate, based on religious beliefs, when it comes to how and whom these institutions serve. And they’re hoping the Roberts Court will give it to them this next term.
Donald Trump's running mate has said that "life is winning in Indiana"—and the biggest winner is probably a chain of crisis pregnancy centers that landed a $3.5 million contract in funds originally intended for poor Hoosiers.
Much has been made of Republican Gov. Mike Pence’s record on LGBTQ issues. In 2000, when he was running for U.S. representative, Pence wrote that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ [sic] entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” He also said that funds meant to help people living with HIV or AIDS should no longer be given to organizations that provide HIV prevention services because they “celebrate and encourage” homosexual activity. Instead, he proposed redirecting those funds to anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” programs, which have been widely discredited by the medical community as being ineffective and dangerous.
Under Pence, ideology has replaced evidence in many areas of public life. In fact, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has just hired a running mate who, in the past year, has reallocated millions of dollars in public funds intended to provide food and health care for needy families to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.
Gov. Pence, who declined multiple requests for an interview with Rewire, has been outspoken about his anti-choice agenda. Currently, Indiana law requires people seeking abortions to receive in-person “counseling” and written information from a physician or other health-care provider 18 hours before the abortion begins. And thanks, in part, to other restrictive laws making it more difficult for clinics to operate, there are currently six abortion providers in Indiana, and none in the northern part of the state. Only four of Indiana’s 92 counties have an abortion provider. All this means that many people in need of abortion care are forced to take significant time off work, arrange child care, and possibly pay for a place to stay overnight in order to obtain it.
This environment is why a contract quietly signed by Pence last fall with the crisis pregnancy center umbrella organization Real Alternatives is so potentially dangerous for Indiana residents seeking abortion: State-subsidized crisis pregnancy centers not only don’t provide abortion but seek to persuade people out of seeking abortion, thus limiting their options.
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“Indiana is committed to the health, safety, and wellbeing [sic] of Hoosier families, women, and children,” reads the first line of the contract between the Indiana State Department of Health and Real Alternatives. The contract, which began on October 1, 2015, allocates $3.5 million over the course of a year for Real Alternatives to use to fund crisis pregnancy centers throughout the state.
Where Funding Comes From
The money for the Real Alternatives contract comes from Indiana’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, a federally funded, state-run program meant to support the most vulnerable households with children. The program was created by the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by former President Bill Clinton. It changed welfare from a federal program that gave money directly to needy families to one that gave money, and a lot of flexibility with how to use it, to the states.
This TANF block grant is supposed to provide low-income families a monthly cash stipend that can be used for rent, child care, and food. But states have wide discretion over these funds: In general, they must use the money to serve families with children, but they can also fund programs meant, for example, to promote marriage. They can also make changes to the requirements for fund eligibility.
As of 2012, to be eligible for cash assistance in Indiana, a household’s maximum monthly earnings could not exceed $377, the fourth-lowest level of qualification of all 50 states, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. Indiana’s program also has some of the lowest maximum payouts to recipients in the country.
Part of this is due to a 2011 work requirement that stripped eligibility from many families. Under the new work requirement, a parent or caretaker receiving assistance needs to be “engaged in work once the State determines the parent or caretaker is ready to engage in work,” or after 24 months of receiving benefits. The maximum time allowed federally for a family to receive assistance is 60 months.
“There was a TANF policy change effective November 2011 that required an up-front job search to be completed at the point of application before we would proceed in authorizing TANF benefits,” Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the state’s Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA), told Rewire. “Most [applicants] did not complete the required job search and thus applications were denied.”
Unspent money from the block grant can be carried over to following years. Indiana receives an annual block grant of $206,799,109, but the state hasn’t been using all of it thanks to those low payouts and strict eligibility requirements. The budget for the Real Alternatives contract comes from these carry-over funds.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, TANF is explicitly meant to clothe and feed children, or to create programs that help prevent “non-marital childbearing,” and Indiana’s contract with Real Alternatives does neither. The contract stipulates that Real Alternatives and its subcontractors must “actively promote childbirth instead of abortion.” The funds, the contract says, cannot be used for organizations that will refer clients to abortion providers or promote contraceptives as a way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
Parties involved in the contract defended it to Rewire by saying they provide material goods to expecting and new parents, but Rewire obtained documents that showed a much different reality.
Real Alternatives is an anti-choice organization run by Kevin Bagatta, a Pennsylvania lawyer who has no known professional experience with medical or mental health services. It helps open, finance, and refer clients to crisis pregnancy centers. The program started in Pennsylvania, where it received a $30 million, five-year grant to support a network of 40 subcontracting crisis pregnancy centers. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called for an audit of the organization between June 2012 and June 2015 after hearing reports of mismanaged funds, and found $485,000 in inappropriate billing. According to the audit, Real Alternatives would not permit DHS to review how the organization used those funds. However, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazettereported in April that at least some of the money appears to have been designated for programs outside the state.
Real Alternatives also received an $800,000 contract in Michigan, which inspired Gov. Pence to fund a $1 million yearlong pilot program in northern Indiana in the fall of 2014.
“The widespread success [of the pilot program] and large demand for these services led to the statewide expansion of the program,” reads the current $3.5 million contract. It is unclear what measures the state used to define “success.”
“Every Other Baby … Starts With Women’s Care Center”
Real Alternatives has 18 subcontracting centers in Indiana; 15 of them are owned by Women’s Care Center, a chain of crisis pregnancy centers. According to its website, Women’s Care Center serves 25,000 women annually in 23 centers throughout Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Women’s Care Centers in Indiana received 18 percent of their operating budget from state’s Real Alternatives program during the pilot year, October 1, 2014 through September 30, 2015, which were mostly reimbursements for counseling and classes throughout pregnancy, rather than goods and services for new parents.
In fact, instead of the dispensation of diapers and food, “the primary purpose of the [Real Alternatives] program is to provide core services consisting of information, sharing education, and counseling that promotes childbirth and assists pregnant women in their decision regarding adoption or parenting,” the most recent contract reads.
The program’s reimbursement system prioritizes these anti-choice classes and counseling sessions: The more they bill for, the more likely they are to get more funding and thus open more clinics.
“This performance driven [sic] reimbursement system rewards vendor service providers who take their program reimbursement and reinvest in their services by opening more centers and hiring more counselors to serve more women in need,” reads the contract.
Classes, which are billed as chastity classes, parenting classes, pregnancy classes, and childbirth classes, are reimbursed at $21.80 per client. Meanwhile, as per the most recent contract, counseling sessions, which are separate from the classes, are reimbursed by the state at minimum rates of $1.09 per minute.
Jenny Hunsberger, vice president of Women’s Care Center, told Rewire that half of all pregnant women in Elkhart, LaPorte, Marshall, and St. Joseph Counties, and one in four pregnant women in Allen County, are clients of their centers. To receive any material goods, such as diapers, food, and clothing, she said, all clients must receive this counseling, at no cost to them. Such counseling is billed by the minute for reimbursement.
“When every other baby born [in those counties] starts with Women’s Care Center, that’s a lot of minutes,” Hunsberger told Rewire.
Rewire was unable to verify exactly what is said in those counseling sessions, except that they are meant to encourage clients to carry their pregnancies to term and to help them decide between adoption or child rearing, according to Hunsberger. As mandated by the contract, both counseling and classes must “provide abstinence education as the best and only method of avoiding unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.”
In the first quarter of the new contract alone, Women’s Care Center billed Real Alternatives and, in turn, the state, $239,290.97; about $150,000 of that was for counseling, according to documents obtained by Rewire. In contrast, goods like food, diapers, and other essentials for new parents made up only about 18.5 percent of Women’s Care Center’s first-quarter reimbursements.
Despite the fact that the state is paying for counseling at Women’s Care Center, Rewire was unable to find any licensing for counselors affiliated with the centers. Hunsberger told Rewire that counseling assistants and counselors complete a minimum training of 200 hours overseen by a master’s level counselor, but the counselors and assistants do not all have social work or psychology degrees. Hunsberger wrote in an email to Rewire that “a typical Women’s Care Center is staffed with one or more highly skilled counselors, MSW or equivalent.”
Rewire followed up for more information regarding what “typical” or “equivalent” meant, but Hunsberger declined to answer. A search for licenses for the known counselors at Women’s Care Center’s Indiana locations turned up nothing. The Indiana State Department of Health told Rewire that it does not monitor or regulate the staff at Real Alternatives’ subcontractors, and both Women’s Care Center and Real Alternatives were uncooperative when asked for more information regarding their counseling staff and training.
Bethany Christian Services and Heartline Pregnancy Center, Real Alternatives’ other Indiana subcontractors, billed the program $380.41 and $404.39 respectively in the first quarter. They billed only for counseling sessions, and not goods or classes.
“We don’t provide medical services. We provide human services,” Bagatta told the City Paper.
There are pregnancy centers in Indiana that provide a full range of referrals for reproductive health care, including for STI testing and abortion. However, they are not eligible for reimbursement under the Real Alternatives contract because they do not maintain an anti-choice mission.
Parker Dockray is the executive director of Backline, an all-options pregnancy resource center. She told Rewire that Backline serves hundreds of Indiana residents each month, and is overwhelmed by demand for diapers and other goods, but it is ineligible for the funding because it will refer women to abortion providers if they choose not to carry a pregnancy to term.
“At a time when so many Hoosier families are struggling to make ends meet, it is irresponsible for the state to divert funds intended to support low-income women and children and give it to organizations that provide biased pregnancy counseling,” Dockray told Rewire. “We wish that Indiana would use this funding to truly support families by providing job training, child care, and other safety net services, rather than using it to promote an anti-abortion agenda.”
“Life Is Winning in Indiana”
Time and again, Bagatta and Hunsberger stressed to Rewire that their organizations do not employ deceitful tactics to get women in the door and to convince them not to have abortions. However, multiple studies have proven that crisis pregnancy centers often lie to women from the moment they search online for an abortion provider through the end of their appointments inside the center.
These studies have also shown that publicly funded crisis pregnancy centers dispense medically inaccurate information to clients. In addition to spreading lies like abortion causing infertility or breast cancer, they are known to give false hopes of miscarriages to people who are pregnant and don’t want to be. A 2015 report by NARAL Pro-Choice America found this practice to be ubiquitous in centers throughout the United States, and Rewire found that Women’s Care Center is no exception. The organization’s website says that as many as 40 percent of pregnancies end in natural miscarriage. While early pregnancy loss is common, it occurs in about 10 percent of known pregnancies, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Crisis pregnancy centers also tend to crop up next to abortion clinics with flashy, deceitful signs that lead many to mistakenly walk into the wrong building. Once inside, clients are encouraged not to have an abortion.
A Google search for “abortion” and “Indianapolis” turns up an ad for the Women’s Care Center as the first result. It reads: “Abortion – Indianapolis – Free Ultrasound before Abortion. Located on 86th and Georgetown. We’re Here to Help – Call Us Today: Abortion, Ultrasound, Locations, Pregnancy.”
Hunsberger denies any deceit on the part of Women’s Care Center.
“Clients who walk in the wrong door are informed that we are not the abortion clinic and that we do not provide abortions,” Hunsberger told Rewire. “Often a woman will choose to stay or return because we provide services that she feels will help her make the best decision for her, including free medical-grade pregnancy tests and ultrasounds which help determine viability and gestational age.”
Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky told Rewire that since Women’s Care Center opened on 86th and Georgetown in Indianapolis, many patients looking for its Georgetown Health Center have walked through the “wrong door.”
“We have had patients miss appointments because they went into their building and were kept there so long they missed their scheduled time,” Judi Morrison, vice president of marketing and education, told Rewire.
Sarah Bardol, director of Women’s Care Center’s Indianapolis clinic, told the Criterion Online Edition, a publication of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, that the first day the center was open, a woman and her boyfriend did walk into the “wrong door” hoping to have an abortion.
“The staff of the new Women’s Care Center in Indianapolis, located just yards from the largest abortion provider in the state, hopes for many such ‘wrong-door’ incidents as they seek to help women choose life for their unborn babies,” reported the Criterion Online Edition.
If they submit to counseling, Hoosiers who walk into the “wrong door” and “choose life” can receive up to about $40 in goods over the course their pregnancy and the first year of that child’s life. Perhaps several years ago they may have been eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but now with the work requirement, they may not qualify.
In a February 2016 interview with National Right to Life, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-choice groups, Gov. Pence said, “Life is winning in Indiana.” Though Pence was referring to the Real Alternatives contract, and the wave of anti-choice legislation sweeping through the state, it’s not clear what “life is winning” actually means. The state’s opioid epidemic claimed 1,172 lives in 2014, a statistically significant increase from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV infections have spread dramatically throughout the state, in part because of Pence’s unwillingness to support medically sound prevention practices. Indiana’s infant mortality rate is above the national average, and infant mortality among Black babies is even higher. And Pence has reduced access to prevention services such as those offered by Planned Parenthood through budget cuts and unnecessary regulations—while increasing spending on anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers.
Gov. Pence’s track record shows that these policies are no mistake. The medical and financial needs of his most vulnerable constituents have taken a backseat to religious ideology throughout his time in office. He has literally reallocated money for poor Hoosiers to fund anti-choice organizations. In his tenure as both a congressman and a governor, he’s proven that whether on a national or state level, he’s willing to put “pro-life” over quality-of-life for his constituents.