Bishop condemns Catholic insurance agency for complying with HHS mandate

“Compliance with government requirements must not be viewed as licit reasoning for compromising moral teachings,” Bishop Paul Swain said.
By Ben Johnson

By Ben Johnson

SIOUX FALLS, SD, March 18, 2013 ( – The Catholic bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has taken action against a Catholic insurance agency that has chosen to cover contraception with no co-pay in order to satisfy the legal requirements of the Obama administration's health reform law.

Bishop Paul Swain said the action of Avera Health Plans has created “public scandal,” because its practices are “inconsistent with Church teaching.”

The decision hits close to home, as the diocese of Sioux Falls is an Avera customer, although the changes do not affect the diocese's policy.

He said the company's CEO, John Porter, decided to begin covering contraceptives and abortifacients without seeking his blessing. “I was not consulted on the decision and disclosure was not made to me until after the expansion of coverage to include these immoral practices had taken effect,” the bishop said.

“Compliance with government requirements must not be viewed as licit reasoning for compromising moral teachings,” he added.

In a letter sent to diocesan priests and deacons dated March 1, Bishop Swain asked Jerry Klein, the diocese's Delegate for Social Outreach, and Mike Bannwarth, Diocesan Finance Officer to resign from Avera Health Plans’ board and finance committee, respectively, “[t]o insure that their continued presence could not be interpreted as diocesan acquiescence and therefore cause an intensification of the scandal.”

Bishop Swain and insurance officials noted the change does not apply to any religious institution that qualifies for a “safe harbor” exemption, including the diocese itself. In all, the new policy affects 300 of Avera's 3,000 customers.

Bishop Robert Gruss of Rapid City, which does not purchase insurance through Avera, also expressed his "disappointment" with Avera.

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Not all employees with Avera were pleased with the decision to comply with the Affordable Care Act's provision that it must provide contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization to all women with no co-pay. "Together with a lot of other Catholic health-affiliated organizations, we have protested this regulation and we are going to continue to push to have it reversed," Daryl Thuringer, vice president of marketing and public relations for Avera, told the Rapid City Journal.

With the increasingly intrusive federal mandates set to take place, Bishop Swain wonders if any faith-based insurance company can survive.

“Sadly, we must consider whether a Catholic healthcare delivery system in our day will be able to balance the regulatory and financial obligations it faces in order to remain a viable business while maintaining its unique and important mission of the healing ministry of Jesus,” he wrote.

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