Last month Ave Maria University, a Catholic institution in Naples, FL, dropped its student health insurance plan because of the moral costs that the Department of Health and Human Service’s anti-conscience mandate imposed on the school. The mandate requires all insurance plans to cover “preventative” services, including abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization.
From its founding, Ave Maria has given its students the option to have health insurance through an inexpensive group policy plan that specifically excludes benefits for elective abortion, sterilization and contraceptives. As a result of the HHS mandate’s coercive requirement to offer drugs and services that violate the teachings of the Catholic Church, Ave Maria decided to drop its student health insurance plan and will also not require students to have health insurance in order to attend the school this fall. The current student health insurance plan covers about 15 percent of students attending the university.
“We no longer made student health insurance a requirement and then we ceased being an intermediary for students who wanted to get health insurance because the policies would force us to violate our conscience,” Ave Maria President Jim Towey said.
Ave Maria has also filed a lawsuit over the HHS mandate, claiming the requirement to provide coverage of drugs and services that violate Catholic teaching is an unwarranted assault on the university’s religious liberty.
In addition to the moral implications of the anti-conscience mandate, other provisions under President Obama’s health care overhaul — marketed as being “affordable” — will, in reality, increase health care insurance costs for students. Due to Obamacare’s mandated increases in the maximum benefit per injury or illness from $50,000 to $100,000, premiums for Ave Maria’s student health plan would have increased 66 percent and deductibles would have skyrocketed 250 percent.
“They increased the maximum benefit and they required all the health plans to adjust to that,” Towey said. “That was a hidden cost increase that no one discussed and that no one anticipated. And then, [Obama] had it thrust on us this spring, surprised us all, and made us do what we did.”
Students may find the sudden loss of health insurance or staggering increases in cost surprising in light of Obama’s promises of greater access and affordability.
“I think it’s really sad that Obamacare is supposed to make things cheaper for students, but it’s actually more expensive,” said Bridget Littleton, a rising senior at Ave Maria. “It’s interesting that they’re trying to make college affordable by providing federal loans. But ObamaCare in this way, at least, is making things more expensive.”
Unfortunately, for students in need of health insurance — and coverage that aligns with their beliefs — the outlook is grim.
Student athletes at Ave Maria may have an even harder time under the new rules. The NCAA requires them to be covered by individual, parental or institutional medical insurance to defray the costs of significant injury or illness.
As a Catholic institution, many students at Ave Maria participate in service projects around the globe. If the university does not provide a health plan to its students, it may disrupt their ability to engage in activities that benefit society.
“I suspect it may come into play when our students are pondering going on a service-learning trip to a third-world country,” Towey said. “They probably will have to make insurance arrangements that previously would’ve been covered under their student health plan.”
Towey acknowledged the difficulty of deciphering what will happen at Ave Maria, given the scale of the health-care overhaul.
“I think everybody is entering the land of the unknown with this huge bill,” he said. “Nobody a year ago was talking about an increased student health insurance or the magnitude we were looking at. We wonder whether there are other things in this health bill that we don’t know about.”
Student health plans aren’t the only coverage options in danger. The HHS mandate applies to all insurance plans, including the school’s employer health insurance.
Ave Maria, along with countless other religious employers, is now faced with a daunting decision: violate its deeply held beliefs by providing coverage for services against their conscience or drop employer health insurance in addition to student plans.
The latter decision may result in arduous fines at roughly $2,000 per employee per year. For Ave Maria, this yearly fine mounts to at least $400,000 that might otherwise go toward helpings its students. With the HHS mandate trampling on religious liberty, the federal government is undermining the mission of universities to educate while diminishing the incentives for private schools to continue serving their communities.
Towey is hopeful that Obamacare’s onerous provisions will soon be a thing of the past.
“Like everyone, we’re watching the Supreme Court to see if they throw the whole law out. If they don’t, we will continue to prosecute our lawsuit against the federal government and defend our First Amendment rights. That just means more time in court,” Towey said.
Melanie Wilcox is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation.