Westchester: LMU trustees set to remove elective abortion option from insurance coverage
By Gary Walker
A decision to eliminate a critical provision of their employees’ healthcare has ignited an issue that has the potential to become a political firestorm on the campus of Loyola Marymount University.
The Jesuit university’s Board of Trustees announced two months ago that it had decided to no longer include elective abortion care in the university’s healthcare package, a move that has infuriated and shocked members of the university’s faculty.
“We are writing to inform you of a change in LMU’s health benefits coverage regarding elective abortions and to correct some misrepresentations that have been reported about how this change occurred,” wrote Kathleen Hannon Aikenhead, chair of the Board of Trustees, to the school’s faculty and employees in an Aug. 15 letter.
The board will meet on Monday, Oct. 7 to make its final decision.
“Dating back to at least 1988 and the presidency of Father James Loughran, S.J., the question of insurance coverage for elective abortions has been an ongoing concern at LMU,” Hannon Aikenhead wrote. “Consistent with our mission as a Catholic university, we have inquired on several occasions since then about our ability to exclude such coverage from our group health plans.
“Until very recently, each time we inquired about the ability to exclude this coverage, we were informed by our healthcare consultants and carriers that we could not exclude this coverage from our health plans,” Hannon Aikenhead continued. “Last fall, we again inquired and received a similar negative response from our consultants about both of our healthcare plans – Anthem and Kaiser.
“The reason given was that both insurers were restricted from doing so based upon their approved fully insured contracts on file with the California Department of Insurance and the Department of Managed Care.”
The chair of the trustees said in her letter that until recently, the university was notified that the information it had received in response to a fall 2012 inquiry was inaccurate.
“In fact, without informing either our healthcare consultant or the university, Anthem had already removed this specific coverage from its LMU plan effective Jan. 1, 2013,” Hannon Aikenhead wrote. “Further, Kaiser has now agreed to exclude this coverage from our Kaiser plan effective Jan. 1, 2014.”
LMU professor Anna Muraco described the change to the healthcare policy as “sudden and unnerving.”
“I wasn’t aware that (removing the elective abortion coverage) had ever been considered,” Muraco told The Argonaut. “It’s unnerving because I fear that it signals that there may be other possible issues that are involved (in this decision).”
The debate of whether the university should continue to provide elective abortion coverage to its employees is taking place against the politically charged backdrop of the beginning of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as well a spate of Catholic universities around the nation considering or eliminating contraceptive or abortion coverage.
Muraco, who teaches sociology, believes it also is a continuation of a national debate regarding abortion and other legal reproductive rights in general, as several states, primarily in the South and the Midwest, are passing laws that are severely restricting abortions as well as access to clinics where women’s healthcare is provided, such as Planned Parenthood.
California has some of the nation’s most progressive choice laws.
“Why are we still having these conversations?” Muraco asked.
Catholic Education Daily, a website operated by the Cardinal Newman Society, a Catholic nonprofit organization that often partners with conservative organizations and claims to “promote and defend faithful Catholic teaching,” credits LMU professor James Hanink for convincing the university to drop its abortion coverage, calling him a “faithful Catholic professor.”
Hanink, who teaches philosophy but according to the university’s website is currently on sabbatical, wrote in July to California Catholic Daily, a conservative website, to express his apparent disappointment in July after learning that the university’s insurance policy covered abortion.
“It appears that LMU, at a time when religious freedom is at risk, has done nothing of a public nature to contest what amounts to an abortion mandate,” Hanink wrote.
Muraco said one of her biggest concerns about the board’s plan is what she calls workplace equity.
“If women cannot control their reproductive lives, then there is not workplace equity,” the professor explained.
Muraco views health insurance as a type of supplement to her income and said it could be even more difficult on lower paid staff members who depend on their health coverage for their family planning and reproductive needs.
Hannon Aikenhead said in her letter that removing the elective abortion provision is a part of the Jesuit school’s deeply held precepts.
“The decision to exclude this coverage, once it became possible, flows directly from our values as a Catholic university in the Jesuit/Marymount traditions,” she acknowledged. “This change will be thoroughly discussed by the entire Board of Trustees at the October board meeting.”
Muraco is troubled by what she says is the board’s decision to leapfrog a committee that typically is in charge of these decisions.
“On campus, normally we have a comprehensive benefits committee that exists to handle these situations,” she said.
Hannon Aikenhead said the elective abortion change is the only component of the insurance package that will be eliminated. All other women’s health-related procedures will remain in “full effect,” she added.
Muraco thinks the board’s impending policy decision is not in line with the Jesuit tradition of social justice. “There cannot be social justice without reproductive (coverage),” she countered.
Muraco said that if the trustees move forward with their decision to eliminate abortion coverage, she would entertain seeking legal counsel to reverse the decision.
“I would not be against filing some sort of legal action,” the professor said. “The fact that the university seems to be able to dabble in our healthcare sets a very dangerous precedent.”