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Interview with Health & Human Services Secretary Sebelius

Interview with Health & Human Services Secretary Sebelius

By John King, USA - March 1, 2012

KING: The Senate today killed the Republican effort to experiment employers from providing health insurance coverage for birth control and other procedures those employers feel violate their consciences.

Let's talk now to the Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius.

She has the job of implementing the new health care reform law.

Madam Secretary, the administration opposed this amendment. Roy Blunt says he's simply trying to protect the First Amendment rights of employers who might have a moral objection to abortion, a moral objection to contraception or something else.

Why does the administration say bad idea?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, first of all, John, the Blunt amendment in the Senate went well beyond women's health services and well beyond contraception services. It really would have allowed any employer, for really any reason, not religious employers for a religious reason, but any employer for any moral reason, to deny any health benefit to any employee.

So you really could have had a situation where employers got to pick and choose what coverage options would be available to their employees. If someone felt that they had a moral objection to people delivering children who weren't married, you could deny prenatal coverage and maternity services. You could deny HIV screening. You could turn down someone for a variety of treatments that you felt fell outside of your objections as an employer.

And that's really not the way a health law can operate. So it was any employer for any reason, any coverage, any employee. And I think it would have totally undermined the notion that if you have health insurance, it should be broad and cover the services desperately needed by people in this country.

KING: During the debate today, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, she voted with the Republicans. She voted in favor of this amendment that you say is a bad idea. but I want you to listen here. Even as she did so, she herself raised some questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: The sponsor of this amendment is completely sincere. And I want to make that clear.

But this issue has become a sad example of election year politics. I believe that a good compromise could have been reached and should have been worked out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is there a good compromise to you, Senator Collins -- or, Madam Secretary?

Is there some way, on some issues, I think you'd concede the point, on some issues, there might be a legitimate moral or religious exemption.

Is there a compromise?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think absolutely what the president announced in February and what we'll be working to implement -- and we'll have a proposed rule in the near future, John -- is a strategy which both protects religious freedom, protects the religious objection of employers who, in the area of contraception, feel that it violates their religious tenets and make sure that the millions of women who need family planning services, who rely on contraception, who, 99 percent of women take contraception at some point during their health lives, have access to this very important preventive service benefit.

So having an insurance company directly provide coverage to women so that employers with a religious objection do not pay for the coverage, do not refer people to the coverage, do not have to provide the coverage.

And we will have a similar accommodation for self-insured plans, working with a variety of the strategies that are operational on the ground.

John, we've got 28 states around this country where the state's law mandates that contraception be a part of covered benefits for women. And Catholic institutions, Catholic hospitals have provided that coverage in a variety of strategies.

So I am confident that by August of 2013, which is when this grace period will be implemented, we will have in place a strategy that meets both the goals...

KING: A...

SEBELIUS: -- certainly respecting religious freedom, but also making sure that women's health benefits, for the first time, will include the full package of services that they need. And then women can make a choice whether or not to access those benefits based on her own faith tradition.

KING: Well, let me ask you in -- in closing, about Senator Collins' point about election year politics.

This is one of these, so I have been at this a while. And you're no stranger to the rough and tumble of politics from your days as governor.

SEBELIUS: Yes.

KING: It seems to me that both parties like this fight. The conservatives like to make it. It's a challenge to the mandates, it's a challenge to the president. They're attacking a health care plan they don't like. And I'm getting a lot of e-mails and press releases from Democratic groups saying Republicans are waging a war on women.

Is this one that you caught in the middle -- now that you're in the cabinet and trying to implement this law -- of a fight that both parties seem to like?

SEBELIUS: Well, hopefully, it -- it won't be a fight that will continue. I -- I think there's no question, John, that for too long, insurance plans haven't paid enough attention to women's health benefits. That's why the Institute of Medicine said, you know, we need to make sure that they included domestic violence screening and well women visits and contraception, which is the most commonly taken drug of women 14 to 44.

On the other hand, the president and I feel very strongly that religious liberty is a critical tenet of our democracy. It's part of the -- what this country was founded on. And I think we have a solution that actually has been operational in many parts of the country, in the majority of the country, for years and years and years.

So I'm confident that we can move forward on a robust benefit package that, for the first time, will take full account of what women's health needs are and respect the religious liberty of -- of employers who find objectionable contraception based on religious tenets. And -- and we will make sure that their objections are -- are followed and listened to, but that the women employees of Catholic hospitals and Catholic institutions, whether they be nurses or janitors or nurse aids or teachers, don't have to give up an important health benefit.

KING: I suspect we might be having this conversation again down the road.

But appreciate your time tonight, Secretary Sebelius.

SEBELIUS: Sure. Good to be with you.

KING: Thank you. 

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