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No pills for women at St. Vincent 

Hospital claims it's exempt from state law.

click to enlarge St. Vincent Little Rock image

An Arkansas law enacted during the administration of former Gov. Mike Huckabee that requires health insurance deliverers to include contraceptive coverage among their benefits does not apply to St. Vincent Health System, hospital Chief Executive Officer Peter Banko says.

The law states that religious employers are exempt if their organization "has one of its primary purposes the inculcation of religious values," which Banko said is the mission of the hospital, and "employs primarily persons who share its religious beliefs." That, too, describes the employees of St. Vincent, he said.

Potential and current employees of the hospital must be familiar with the guiding documents of the Catholic Church and "regularly have to attest that they are in compliance with those directives," Banko said.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's position is that companies with 15 or more employees must offer birth control coverage if they offer any prescription coverage. They would be exempt only if they offered no prescription coverage at all. The EEOC ruling said to do otherwise was to discriminate on the basis of sex, a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic university in the nation, offers birth control coverage thanks to an EEOC complaint. Georgetown University provides its students plans that cover both contraceptives and abortion, according to the Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor.

The EEOC ruling is not a "legislative mandate," Banko noted. "We feel we are in compliance with all federal and state laws."

In the words of one Catholic clinic that boils down the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care statement, "... each and every marriage act (quilibet matrimonii usus) must remain open to the transmission of life ... ." Banko said employees have "to sign a statement with respect to compliance annually."

Arkansas's law, the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act, was introduced in 2005 by Democratic and Republican women in the state legislature. State Sen. Joyce Elliott recalled that previous attempts at similar legislation by State Rep. Jim Lendall had failed to get a second to get out of committee. "I was bowled over," Elliott said, at Lendall's failure.

Elliott said the legislation was about parity, not politics, and to stress that fact one Republican and one Democratic lawmaker presented it to the House Insurance and Commerce Committee. "It was a matter of parity," Elliott said; if insurance companies were going to cover Viagra and Cialis for men, they could certainly cover contraceptives for women.

"I wonder if any hospital, no matter who they are, who has a religious objection, if they are exercising that objection with a sense of parity as well," such as covering medicine for erectile dysfunction, Elliott said.

The Times was not able to verify that St. Vincent's provides coverage of Viagra and Cialis for employees by press time.

Baptist Health spokesman Mark Lowman said the hospital does offer its employees insurance that covers contraceptives.

State Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford said that to his knowledge there has never been a complaint about St. Vincent's insurance policy. He said he believes the institution meets the purpose test (of religious inculcation). If an employee were to complain based on the shared beliefs requirement, however, the commission would perhaps "open a file and see what the circumstances are."

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