Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

A Catholic Health Plan for Federal Employees?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

A Catholic Health Plan for Federal Employees?

Article excerpt

In mid-September, the Bush Administration proposed adding a Roman Catholic version of a Health Savings Account ("HSA") as a new option for Illinois participants in the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program. The plan, scheduled to roll out in November, will be administered by OSF Health, a consortium of six Catholic hospitals in Illinois and Michigan run by the Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis. As a Catholic plan, the OSF package of benefits will exclude reimbursement for contraceptives, abortion and sterilization services, and artificial insemination.

The timing of the Bush plan was hardly coincidental, in the midst of a presidential campaign that featured several Catholic bishops taking John Kerry to task for his Cuomo-like stance on "pro-life" issues. Yet, political tactics aside, the Bush proposal deserves thoughtful analysis, whereas immediate criticisms have been both predictable and largely unilluminating.

Some critics see the plan as an opening salvo in a broader effort to curtail benefit options for federal employees, but such slippery slope worries are unconvincing. The strength of FEHB historically has been the variety of coverage options available to federal employees. More than four million federal employees will have access to 249 choices of health plans in 2005. Moreover, FEHB's strategy of managed competition among qualified providers has been far more effective in containing costs than the efforts of other targeted programs. Indeed, the success of FEHB explains why Kerry proposed letting all Americans buy into it. Other more strident critics of Bush's Catholic option describe it as offering "substandard care," but that characterization begs the question for those who judge abortion, sterilization, and contraception immoral and want their out-of pocket contributions to support a plan that comports with their religious values.

Some observers have described the plan as another step in Bush's program of "faith-based" initiatives. The "set asides" of social service grant dollars for religious organizations were a way of privileging those groups, but that concern does not arise in offering an optional Catholic health plan because the federal dollars in the FEHB are fully fungible. …

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