Buying health insurance in the United States is becoming more and more like picking a military uniform in World War II: You can have any color you want as long as it’s olive drab.
That’s the message from the recent decision by the Obama administration to force every insurance company in the nation to make certain “preventive services” free of charge to every insured man, woman and child.
Most media reports on the decision described the issue as a gain for women’s health and expanded access to contraceptives. Critics argued that the decision violates freedom of religion because it will require certain employers to provide insurance coverage for practices that violate their religious beliefs.
At first blush, the mandate debate might seem like an isolated skirmish between small groups of citizens. But the truth is these mandates have powerful implications — not only for religious liberty but for wider freedoms as well.
Yes, use of contraceptives already is nearly universal among American women, according to the pro-mandate Alan Guttmacher Institute. As a result, only 7 percent of women are at risk of unexpected pregnancy by not using a method of family planning.
Moreover, the United States spends enormous sums here and abroad to give away “free” birth control to the poor. Nine out of 10 employer-sponsored insurance plans cover birth control. And 27 states have passed laws requiring insurers to include, in general prescription drug coverage, all forms of family planning approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
What about those who object on religious grounds? Relatively few Americans work for religious institutions that decline to cover contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and surgical sterilization — all of which the Obama administration says must be covered.
But consider the repercussions.
Prime examples of affected religious institutions would include Catholic hospitals and universities. These entities don’t appear to meet the extremely high standard set by the birth control mandate to qualify for a religious exemption. The government offers the exemption only to those that limit both their hiring and services to members of their church.
Very few religious institutions meet this standard, and for a profound reason.
For Christian institutions, the Good Samaritan in the Bible is the model. Jesus’s familiar parable depicts a man who cares for a stranger after he has “fallen among thieves” and endured a savage beating.
The fact that the two aren’t physical neighbors but rather ethnic rivals (underscored when two clergymen pass by without stopping to help the beaten man) isn’t just a detail. It’s the whole point of the story. Charity ignores boundaries and addresses human needs.
Thousands of groups in our society accept these religious teachings. They routinely offer everything from job training to food and shelter to all comers without charge.
To them, the Obama administration now basically says: “If you want to maintain your religious character in your insurance plans, forget about being Good Samaritans.”
Surely that can’t be the intent of the mandates. But the result is clear: a heavy harness on charitable impulses.
Community after community across America will lose invaluable civic partners if this comes to pass. Especially since many religiously motivated entities will close their doors rather than submit to forced violation of their core beliefs.
The new requirements are unfair in another sense. They don’t merely mandate coverage, but do so at zero out-of-pocket cost to the insured.
They label sterilization as preventive medicine; that way, covered individuals won’t have to pay a deductible or co-insurance to get the procedure. Hernia surgery, on the other hand, isn’t included — so individuals who need that treatment will contribute toward their own surgery while fully subsidizing sterilizations for others.
Have you completed your family and aged beyond the childbearing years? Would you prefer no copay for your child’s asthma inhalers rather than for birth control pills? You’re out of luck. You will pay for your own prescriptions, and you will subsidize someone else’s.
It doesn’t take a religious perspective to recognize unfairness. The administration’s mandates for health coverage represent yet another Washington power grab against the private sector. The move prizes some Americans’ health needs, and wants, over those of others.
The government will end up limiting everyone’s freedom. Making health insurance policies more uniform this way may appeal to certain activists, sure. But the result is pretty much like a neighborhood full of restaurants required to offer the same menu at the same prices.
They might as well paint all the walls olive drab.
Charles A. (Chuck) Donovan is senior research fellow in theDeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation