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Thursday, March 8

How Republicans Are Trying to Force You to Pay for Others' Religious Beliefs


We shouldn't have to subsidize the antiquated religious beliefs of a small minority.
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Last week, the Blunt-Rubio Amendment, which would have allowed any employer to refuse to cover any medical goods or services he or she found “morally objectionable,” went down to a narrow defeat, but Republicans aren't giving up on the issue. They appear to be intent on using the power of government to force the vast majority of Americans who have no problem with birth control to pay for a small minority's personal beliefs through higher insurance premiums.

I should make one thing clear: religious liberty is bedrock principle, and people whose faith leads them to oppose the use of birth control have that right. But that's not the issue – nobody is being forced to use contraception contrary to their beliefs, and the “accommodation” the Obama administration came to with the Catholic bishops means that religious institutions don't need to get involved.

In fact, many states have long mandated that prescription drug plans cover contraceptives, and the issue of “religious liberty” was never even raised until it became a partisan talking-point. Mitt Romney didn't carve out an exception for employers that are affiliated with a church in Massachussetts, nor did Mike Huckabee when he was the governor of Arkansas.

In New Hampshire, Republican lawmakers are trying to do away with just such a requirement. The law has been in effect for 12 years, since it was passed by a Republican legislature. As NPR noted, “nobody at the time, it seems, saw the policy as a blow against religious liberty.” State Rep. Terie Norelli, who co-sponsored the law in 2000, told NPR, "There was no discussion whatsoever — I even went back and looked at the history from the bill. There was not one comment about religious freedoms." According to the report, “It wasn't just lawmakers who were silent; religious leaders were, too.”

No, this is about health insurance. And the simple fact is that it costs insurers a lot more to cover a population without offering that population birth control than it does to pick up the cost of contraceptives. What will insurers do if they have to pay extra not to cover birth control? They will, of course, pass the extra costs onto the rest of us through higher premiums.

And this is fundamentally unfair. The vast majority of Americans don't have a moral objection to using birth-control (99 percent of women who are at risk of becoming pregnant have done so), and as long as the devout's right to practice their religion as they choose – to only engage in “procreative sex” if they so choose -- is not in danger, then we shouldn't have to pay for their superstitions through higher premiums.

Religious conservatives are desperately trying to turn this argument on its head, claiming it is they who would have to pay higher premiums to cover others' birth control. “It’s not really about whether contraception would be included in insurance coverage,” Tim LeFever, head of the Capitol Resource Institute, a religious-right group, told Salon. “It’s that with our country’s tradition of religious liberty, Obama would step in like he did. Very few people consider the compromise anything more than a wink and a nod. Most of us say, ‘Of course we’re still paying for it. You’re still going to war against our conscience.’”

He's right that most conservatives say exactly that, but it couldn't be further from the truth. As I wrote recently, it costs significantly more to insure a population without offering contraception because the cost of unwanted pregnancies is so high – higher, in fact, than the cost of planned pregnancies, which are associated with lower risk of complications. For the cost of the average childbirth in the United States, you could cover a woman's birth control pills for approximately 293 years.

According to a study by the Washington Business Group on Health and the employee benefits consulting firm William M. Mercer, “It costs employers 15–17 percent more to not provide contraceptive coverage in employee health plans than to provide such coverage.”

And that analysis understates the savings, because they only weigh the costs of providing birth control against the costs of unplanned pregnancies (whether they end in a birth or an abortion). As the Department of Health and Human Services notes, “when indirect costs such as time away from work and productivity loss are considered, they further reduce the total cost to an employer.”

Global Health Outcomes developed a model that incorporates costs of contraception, costs of unintended pregnancy, and indirect costs. They find that it saves employers $97 per year per employee to offer a comprehensive contraceptive benefit. Similarly, the PwC actuaries state that after all effects are taken into account, providing contraceptive services is “cost-saving.”

Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation claimed that, under the administration's new rules, “employers and employees will still bear the cost of paying for coverage of contraception... because insurance companies will simply pass on the cost of this ‘free’ service with higher premiums to the employer.”

That turns reality on its head -- what Republicans want to do is allow employers to opt out of preventive care that saves money, and the rest of us will bear those costs when insurers pass them on in the form of higher premiums.

So, let's be clear: nobody's religious beliefs are being threatened by including birth control in the basket of preventive services insurers must offer. If your religion compels you to either abstain from sex or have unprotected sex, you're more than welcome to do so and we'll have to content ourselves with hoping that your partner isn't picking up any STDs on the side.

But when it comes to using the power of “big government” to coerce the rest of us into paying higher insurance premiums for those beliefs, well, that's what the separation of church and state is all about. We're just demanding the freedom not to have to pay for your antiquated religious views.

Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.
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