Friday, February 10, 2012

There is No Free Lunch and There is No Free Contraception

The otherworldy Obama Administration solution to the contraception firestorm might work politically but it makes no sense in the real world.

The President, hoping to quell a growing political firestorm, today announced a new policy that no longer requires religiously affiliated organizations to provide employees with contraception coverage in health-insurance plans.

Under the new policy, insurance companies will be required to offer free contraception for their employees and dependents. The administration’s idea is to shift the onus for the coverage from the employer to the insurer. Catholic leaders, and lots of other people, had objected to the requirement, which exempted churches but not hospitals, charities and universities with religious affiliations.

So, let’s just play a game here. The religious organization just pretends that it has nothing to do with it but the insurance company pays for it anyway. Hey, the insurance companies are rich.

Of course there is a cost. Today, contraception is almost universally covered in health insurance policies. The argument that forcing insurers to pay for it, without deductibles and copays, saves money because it avoids pregnancy costs is just plain silly. If insurers saved money handing out contraception for free in the first place, they would have started to hand it out for free years ago. Add to that the insurance company must absorb a not insignificant administrative cost for adding a person-by-person "rider" for free contraception.

In addition, we have the unique situation where a business (insurance companies) will be required to provide a product to a specific market (religious organizations not wanting to provide the coverage) but prohibited from charging for it--apparently because the government has done the cost calculation for them and in their sole discretion has decided they don't have to.

The administration is arguing that offering contraception actually lowers costs and therefore forcing insurers to waive copays won't mean higher costs. If this were 1970, when modern contraception was first offered, that might be true. But now plan sponsors are expected to waive copays and deductibles on something that is already virtually universally available. There will be an incremental cost.

If the program is self-insured, the insurer will not get any of the benefits from lower pregnancy cost--it will all go to the plan sponsor--but the self-insured administrator will be expected to cover the entire cost of the contraceptive services.

This is simply an attempt by the administration to backpedal from a firestorm of controversy they should have never been in in the first place. They are caught between the left that is not about to back down over what they see as a critical women’s health issue and the right that is not about to countenance the government ever telling a church what to do.

But insurers will likely just shut up and go along with it. They have no intention of getting into the middle of this political mess—but they will quietly pass the costs along. In fact, for any large religious organization that is self-insured, they won’t have much choice but to pass the costs on to the employer. But that won’t be a problem so long as everyone just agrees to pretend.

This is a clumsy attempt on the part of the Obama Administration to be on both sides of a thorny issue.

The problem is that there is no free lunch and there is no free contraception.


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