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Wheaton's Emergency Shift
Evangelical college in Illinois says it covered emergency contraception -- which it considers tantamount to abortion -- inadvertently until uproar over federal birth control mandate began. But late change complicates its legal position.
When Illinois's Wheaton College joined the Catholic University of America in a lawsuit over the federal requirement that insurance plans cover birth control, the presidents of the two colleges emphasized their shared opposition to the morning-after pill despite their differences on the morality of contraception.
But Wheaton, an evangelical Christian college, used to cover the morning-after pill as part of its own insurance plans, dropping it only after the uproar over the federal requirement started a year ago.
Most colleges suing the Department of Health and Human Services over the mandate are Roman Catholic; they argue that all forms of contraception are against their religious beliefs. But a few evangelical colleges, including Wheaton, are arguing solely against emergency contraception -- the pills (Plan B, ella and their generic counterparts) that can prevent pregnancy if taken within a few days of unprotected sex.
The college, which argues in its lawsuit that the morning-after pill causes abortions, says that covering emergency contraception was an oversight. As soon as administrators learned that their Blue Cross Blue Shield health plans included prescription coverage for Plan B and ella or their generic equivalents, as required by Illinois state law, they switched to self-funded prescription insurance plans to avoid the state mandate.
Eric Kniffin, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represents Wheaton in its lawsuit, said the college doesn’t know when or how its insurance coverage for emergency contraception came about. Illinois passed a law in 2003 requiring that insurance plans treat all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs and devices in the same way as other prescriptions or devices; by then, Plan B was already an FDA-approved contraceptive pill.
Whether the pills actually prevent pregnancy by blocking the implantation of a fertilized egg is scientifically unresolved. But if they do, the college considers that the equivalent of abortion and abhorrent to its religious principles.
Since Wheaton didn’t object to covering other contraceptive pills, apparently no one at the college thought to inquire about whether the law required coverage for emergency contraception, Kniffin said. “Once this mandate became part of the news, people started asking questions like, ‘I’m sure we don’t cover that, isn’t that right?’ ” he said.
The mandate has provoked an uproar among Catholic and some evangelical Christian colleges since last August, with the furor worsening in January, when it became clear that colleges would not benefit from the law's religious exemption. The Obama administration proposed a compromise -- that insurers, not colleges, would pay for the contraception coverage -- that did little to quell the controversy. So far, 24 lawsuits, including several from colleges, have been filed over the rule.
But the late change in insurance plans at Wheaton -- the switch to self-funded plans wasn’t finished until April, because separating the prescription plans from the college’s health management organization was complicated, Kniffin said -- has put the college in a difficult position. Most religious colleges and universities, whether or not they are suing the administration, get an extra year to comply with the Department of Health and Human Services requirement. Wheaton does not, both because its insurance plans still cover some forms of contraception and because emergency contraception was covered in February, the deadline to qualify for the one-year exemption.
This means the college will once again have to cover emergency contraception by Jan. 1 unless the courts grant its injunction.
Wheaton referred requests for comment to Kniffin, who said he does not expect that the earlier insurance coverage will affect the lawsuit. The same thing happened to “a lot of plaintiffs,” he said. Belmont Abbey College, which filed a suit over the mandate which has since been dismissed, covered birth control before withdrawing the coverage in 2007, before the federal mandate was proposed.
“There’s no question as to the college’s sincerity,” Kniffin said of Wheaton. “A change was made without their knowledge. When they became aware of it, they changed it right away.”
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