Friday, December 12, 2008

USF Abortion Controversy Began in 2002

Several blogs and news sites have been reporting on information brought to light on The Catholic Key Blog that the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco includes elective abortion coverage in its mandatory Student Health Insurance Program through Aetna Insurance.


This post is intended to provide some historical context and additional information about USF's longer-term provision of abortion referrals and insurance.

1. Is abortion coverage mandated in California? No.

In 2000, the California Legislature passed the Women's Contraceptive Equity Act which required that all health plans which include a prescription drug benefit must also provide contraceptive coverage. The act did not include abortion coverage and it did provide an exemption for religious employers.

Subsequently, in a highly publicized 2004 case, the California Supreme Court required Catholic Charities agencies in California to comply with the WCEA and provide contraceptive coverage to its employees. The court reasoned that Catholic Charities did not qualify for an exemption because it was not a "religious employer". In adopting a very narrow interpretation of what constituted a religious employer, the Court may have opened the doors to requiring other religious organizations which are not strictly churches to provide contraceptive coverage. The Court's definition of what constitutes a religious employer may very well exclude the University of San Francisco and other Catholic universities and schools.

To my knowledge that has not been tested, but it is a moot point, because neither the legislature nor the Court require abortion coverage in any private health plan - religious or non-religious.

2. Aren't these plans standardized? Isn't abortion coverage automatic? No.

Religious employers in California and elsewhere have followed with keen interest developments in law with regard to mandated benefits. That is because many of them in good conscience do not want to provide certain types of coverage and do not currently provide certain types of coverage.

Insurance providers tailor-fit health plans, within the bounds of local law, to the needs of clients. These needs may be financial or moral. Some employers provide levels of coverage higher or lower than others and some exclude various types of coverage for various reasons.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco, dioceses across the United States and other Catholic institutions do not provide abortion coverage for obvious reasons. Insurance administrators accommodate this.

For instance, Aetna, which provides the Student Health Insurance Plan at USF, also provides the Student Health Insurance Plan at Jesuit-run University of Seattle. At USF, Aetna's plan specifically includes abortion coverage. At Seattle University, Aetna's plan specifically excludes abortion coverage.

3. Isn't this probably just an unintentional mistake by USF? An oft-repeated mistake if so.

USF is no stranger to this controversy. In 2002, USF was one of a handful of Catholic Universities called to task by the Association of Students at Catholic Colleges for referring students to Planned Parenthood on university websites and at student clinics.

At the time, the Student Health Education Program website at USF referred students to Planned Parenthood under a webpage titled "Pregnancy". They even provided a phone number with the quick-key to make an appointment. The page is still available at the Way Back Machine.

The site recommended Planned Parenthood for "Pregnancy counseling, birth control and family planning, pelvic exams/pap tests, Men’s Health services, HIV/STD testing (7 day return) and counseling, emergency contraception, prenatal counseling, immediate pregnancy testing, primary care, and much more…. "

USF responded to the controversy by taking down the referral information on the "Pregnancy" page and instead viewers got a message that the page "is currently being reviewed," with a suggestion to call a phone number which was the extension of the same administrator who put the referral up in the first place. That employee has since left, but visitors to that page are still told it "is currently under review," now six years later.

USF's Student Health Insurance Plan only became mandatory this Fall, however, the University has offered student health insurance in the past. As early as 2005, USF offered a student plan through BC Life & Health which included coverage for the abortion pill. The policy stated there was a 10% in-plan/30% out-of-plan copay for "Prescription drug for elective abortion (mifepristone)".

USF employees have also received abortion coverage in their health plans since at least 2006. USF's Kaiser Health Plan for employees in 2006 offered "Voluntary termination of pregnancy" for a $15 copayment per procedure.

USF's Blue Cross employee plan in 2006 offered mifepristone and abortion coverage. In that same year, Blue Cross and Kaiser were the same insurers used by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The Archdiocese' plan however, specifically excluded abortion coverage.

More as the story develops.