A Roman Catholic college in Ohio announced Tuesday that it will discontinue its student health-insurance plan in the upcoming academic year rather than offer students a plan that would soon include free birth control. The college said the decision was driven by both financial and moral concerns, but it appears likely to become another point of contention in the ongoing debate about contraception, health insurance and religious institutions.
Students at Franciscan University of Steubenville will have to find other insurance coverage next year, the college said in a statement on its website. Coverage for employees will not change. About 200 of the university's 2,100 students currently rely on the college health plan.
When the Department of Health and Human Services announced in February that all health insurance plans for employees and students would have to cover contraception as part of a broad array of preventive care measures, the new requirement has created an uproar at Catholic colleges and other institutions. A proposed compromise from the administration — that insurers, not colleges, would pay for the contraceptive coverage — did little to stem the outrage. Religious colleges will have an additional year to comply with the new requirement, which will take effect in 2013.
Since the initial announcement, the controversy has played out on several Catholic campuses. Xavier University announced that it would drop contraceptive coverage for employees next year, while faculty and staff at John Carroll University signed a letter urging their president to speak up in favor of birth control and defy the Catholic bishops leading the charge against the new requirement. Several colleges, including Catholic and evangelical Protestant institutions, have filed lawsuits over the new rule. But while some had threatened to drop their insurance coverage if the mandate was allowed to stand, Franciscan is believed to be the first to do so.
"We will not participate in a plan that requires us to violate the consistent teachings of the Catholic Church on the sacredness of human life," the university said in a statement on its website.
The college's decision had both a religious and a financial component, said Michael Hernon, vice president of advancement at Franciscan. Officials considered the required coverage for birth control, which is forbidden in Catholic doctrine, and the "morning-after pill," which some Christian groups consider tantamount to abortion, to be unacceptable. But he said insurance premiums were set to double — from $600 per student per year to $1,300 per student — due to higher coverage limits imposed as part of the Affordable Care Act, the new health care law.
"We didn't feel it was just to double the cost," Hernon said, adding that the college considers the cost to be a moral concern as well. "That's a huge thing for our students. We try to keep our tuition to under the average and try to keep a very modest and reasonable tradition."
Hernon said the university had heard no negative comments from students about the decision. Franciscan is known as a conservative Catholic college — it promotes anti-abortion activism, and the college's president, the Rev. Terence Henry, has been outspoken about the contraception requirement, and has called for prayers to "thwart a decision that asks Catholics to become cooperators with intrinsically evil acts." The university so far has not joined any lawsuits against the requirement.
Young Invincibles, a group that advocated for the health care overhaul, said Franciscan's decision not to comply with the law put it in a small minority. "The vast majority of schools are complying with the law and, as a result, students will see significant improvements in their plans starting in Fall 2012," the group's co-founder and executive director, Aaron Smith, said in a statement e-mailed to Inside Higher Ed. "We are disappointed that Franciscan University is choosing not to provide coverage to their students entirely, when the law actually gives the school a year grace period while an accommodation is worked out."