Health, abortion issues split Obama administration and Catholic groups
A contentious battle between Catholic groups and the Obama administration has flared in recent days, fueled by the new health-care law and ongoing divisions over access to abortion and birth control.
The latest dispute centers on a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services in late September to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of human trafficking, or modern-day slavery. The church group had overseen nationwide services to victims since 2006 but was denied a new grant in favor of three other groups.
The bishops organization, in line with the church’s teachings, had refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptives or abortion. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and HHS officials said they made a policy decision to award the grants to agencies that would refer women for those services.
The bishops conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny.
The fight further sours an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics over several issues. The bishops fiercely oppose the administration’s decision in February to no longer defend the federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups also have objected in recent weeks to a proposed HHS mandate — issued under the health-care law — that would require private insurers to provide women with contraceptives without charge.
On the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS awarded the new grants to the bishops’ competitors despite a recommendation from career staffers that the bishops be funded based on scores by an independent review board, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents.
That prompted a protest from some HHS staffers, who said the process was unfair and politicized, individuals familiar with the matter said. Their concerns have been reported to the HHS inspector general’s office.
Under HHS policies, career officials usually oversee grant competitions, and priority consideration is given to the review board’s judgment. The policies do not prohibit political appointees from getting involved. “I think it’s a sad ma nipu la tion of a process to promote a pro-abortion agenda,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the conference. She has written on the organization’s blog that the decision reflects an HHS philosophy of “ABC (Anybody But Catholics)’’.
HHS denies bias
HHS officials denied any bias and pointed out that Catholic groups have received at least $800 million in HHS funding to provide social services since the mid-1990s, including $348 million to the bishops conference. One of those grants, $19 million to aid foreign refugees in America, was awarded to the bishops three days after the anti-trafficking contract expired Oct. 10.
“There wasn’t an intention to go out and target anybody,’’ said George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families. “Nobody has ownership of a contract.’’ He added that the agency “followed standard procedure.”
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I may comment later, but today I am out and around!