Cover Story

Abbey's road

"Abbey's road" Continued...

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

The House proposal imposes a fine, totaling 8 percent of average wages per employee, for businesses whose workers go on a federally subsidized plan. One doesn't have to be a Warren Buffet to conclude that the penalty may be cheaper than the cost of insurance.

For example, Stevens says it costs $10,800 for CMA to provide its employees with a basic family plan. For someone making a $25,000 salary it makes more economic sense for the company to pay the 8 percent ($2,000) fine and save $8,000 by sending the employee to the government-run plan. For Stevens, it only becomes more cost-effective to provide insurance for employees making more than $135,000.

The Senate bills offer even weaker penalties to employers-either $400 or $750 per employee-making it cheaper not to provide insurance.

Here is where the vicious cycle kicks in: With fewer customers, private insurers will be forced to raise premiums or go bankrupt. The healthcare overhaul is already expected to cause insurance prices to rise to about $26,000 for a family policy over the next decade as companies pass on to consumers the $6.7 billion a year in new fees imposed in current proposals.

"This is a powerful incentive to dump people into the public plan," predicts Stevens. "It's a backdoor way of creating a national healthcare system where, before long, the government is calling the shots."

In such a Medicare-for-all environment with bureaucrats dictating what should be covered and providing the coverage, odds are high that both organizations and people of faith will soon face tough-if not impossible-choices.

For now, Belmont Abbey's Thierfelder is most concerned with religious liberty, and from a modest classroom on the quiet campus, he seems surprised to be in the middle of a sweeping debate. "It's incredible that it would be tiny, little Belmont Abbey College, but this is clearly a precedent-setting case," he says. "If you want to be able to practice your faith, you're interested in this case."

The case began in December 2007 when a faculty member asked Thierfelder if he realized the school's healthcare plan for employees covered abortion, birth control, and sterilization. He didn't. Thierfelder says he immediately called Placid Solari, abbot of the monastery and chancellor of the college. (The on-site monks maintain a close connection with the college founded by their predecessors, often serving as professors, board members, or mentors for students.)

Thierfelder says he and the abbot were in the school's human resources office within minutes: "We said: 'That's it-absolutely, we cannot provide this.'" The reason was simple: "It's the teaching of the Catholic Church." (Catholic doctrine has long taught against abortion and artificial birth control.)

The human resources department dropped the options from the coverage, and the president thought the matter was settled. But Thierfelder says the North Carolina Department of Insurance informed the school that an employee complained about the change. The president says he explained the school's religious objections to all three services, and the department granted a religious exemption allowed by state law. He says the school's insurance provider-Well Path-also allowed the religious exemption.

But the matter still wasn't settled. Eight faculty members filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging gender and religious discrimination. The EEOC is the government agency that enforces federal discrimination laws. Certain portions of the Civil Rights Act and Americans with Disabilities Act apply to private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions that employ 15 or more people.

The complaint set in motion the EEOC's strange behavior of dismissing the complaint and then reversing the dismissal. The July 30 letter from director Reuben Daniels said the office found that Belmont Abbey "is discriminating based on gender because only females take oral prescription contraceptives. By denying coverage, men are not affected, only women." Thierfelder notes that six of the eight people who complained are men.

(The letter also stated that Belmont Abbey was not discriminating based on religion because the policy applied to all employees regardless of their religion. The school accepts non-Catholic students and faculty members, while maintaining a Catholic identity.)

It's not clear why the EEOC reversed its original finding. An attorney with the EEOC office in Charlotte didn't respond to a request for comment. Dave Grinberg, spokesman for the EEOC office in Washington, D.C., said federal law doesn't allow the EEOC to comment on whether it's handling a case, and that he couldn't confirm or deny whether the office had received a complaint about Belmont Abbey. Grinberg said he could confirm that the EEOC hasn't filed a lawsuit against the college.

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