House votes to broaden religious exemptions within 'Obamacare'
Susan Walsh, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — While employers are going to court seeking protections on religious grounds against the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate, another group of believers is on its way to securing total exemption from the health-insurance requirement of the ACA.
The Hill newspaper, which covers congressional actions, reported that a "fix it" bill, the Equitable Access to Care and Health Act, passed on a voice vote March 11. The measure has been received by the Senate, where committee action there would be the next step, though not one that is guaranteed.
While the original ACA bill chiefly exempted members of some Amish and Mennonite communities who also are excused, on moral grounds, from paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, other people faced difficulties. Followers of Christian Science, many of whom eschew medicine in favor of prayer and Bible study, are required to buy health insurance under health care reform even though many of its services would not be used by Christian Scientists.
Enter Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., a Baptist and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In April 2013, he proposed the EACH Act, which was co-sponsored by 225 members of the House, including Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Chris Stewart, both Republicans, and Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat.
Speaking on the House floor before the bill passed, Schock said, "In order to qualify for the exemption under the EACH Act, an individual must affirm on an annual tax return that he or she cannot purchase coverage due to a 'sincerely held religious belief.' This term, as defined by the U.S. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and widely recognized by the courts, is designed to protect various types of religious believers, not just those who belong to a traditional, organized religion."
But it was members of one organized religion in particular, Christian Science, that were under threat here. Rep. Bill Keating, a Democrat from Massachusetts, explained during the House debate of the bill that such an exemption exists under his state's universal health care law.
"With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Donna (Smiley, a Christian Scientist from Centerville) would no longer be able to take advantage of the Massachusetts religious conscience exemption and would be penalized by the federal government for not having insurance," he said, according to Capitolwords.org. "The EACH Act, modeled after the process that has been in place in Massachusetts for the past seven years, would ensure that a fair solution is reached so that Donna and other Americans are not penalized for their religious beliefs next year."
And as Keating noted, such exemptions for believers are not unusual. Along with that Massachusetts exemption, Christian Scientists for years have been allowed to deduct payments for Christian Science practitioner and nursing care from their federal taxable income and those using such treatments can also apply pre-tax dollars from Health Savings Accounts to their cost.
Not everyone in Congress is happy with the exemption. Some members, including Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., according to The Wall Street Journal, "said they opposed the measure because it was too broad and potentially would allow anyone to claim a religious exemption." And the secularist Center for Inquiry public policy arm warned followers "this bill does not aim to protect freedom of religion; it aims to place religion on a pedestal, allowing believers to disobey a law that everyone else must follow."
There is another means by which those with moral concerns about the ACA's provisions can avoid penalties and have health coverage: faith-based coops where members vow to pay each other's bills.
Fox News Channel reports that organizations, such as Medi-Share, a part of the Christian Care Ministry, are enrolling thousands of people. Criteria include "agree(ing) to live so-called biblical lifestyles — meaning regular church attendance; no drugs, tobacco, or sex outside of marriage; and limited alcohol consumption." Critics, however, allege that since there's no commitment or requirement for such coops to pay bills, members could be left with large debts, something supporters and members say hasn't happened.
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