Due to an objection with an Affordable Care Act mandate that requires health insurance plans to offer base birth control, Wheaton College has announced that it will no longer offer health insurance to its students to avoid conflicting with the institution's Christian convictions.
The decision, announced to its students on July 10, effectively strips about a quarter of the suburban Chicago non-denominational liberal arts school's undergraduate and graduate students of their health care plans, which is about 700-plus individuals.
As one of the most contested aspects of Obamacare has been the requirement for health insurance plans to provide birth control and emergency contraceptives, a number of Christian organizations have cried foul, claiming that the law violates their religious beliefs.
Although the arts supply chain Hobby Lobby had some success in fighting such a mandate in the court system, other Christian organizations have not been as successful as federal courts have ruled against their claims of religious objection.
Wheaton college's July 10 announcement comes a little over a week after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against giving Wheaton a preliminary injunction that would have exempted the college from having to offer its students health plans that include emergency abortifacient drugs.
In an information session with students that was recorded and obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Paul Chelsen, Wheaton's vice president of student development, said the school did not want its students to lose their health coverage but felt that the it had to stop offering student health insurance as a way to fight back against the government mandate.
"What has brought us here is about student health insurance, but it's bigger than student health insurance," Chelsen declared. "What really breaks my heart is that there are real people that are affected by our decision.
"But if we don't win this case, the implications down the road in terms of what the government will tell us what we can and cannot do will be potentially more significant."
The July 10 announcement gave students on the college health plan only weeks to search for alternative coverage before their health coverage ends.
"I acknowledge that students have been hurt by this decision and I regret that," Chelsen added.
Even though school officials explained that there is a compromise provision to the mandate that would allow the school to honor its religious objections by notifying the government or insurance provider, the provision still prompts the institution's insurance provider to provide students with birth control coverage directly.
"When Wheaton College tells us that it is being 'forced' to allow 'use' of its health plans to cover emergency contraceptives, it is wrong," Judge Richard Posner wrote in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
"It's being 'forced' only to notify its insurers (including third-party administrators), whether directly or by notifying the government (which will forward the notification to the insurers), that it will not use its health plans to cover emergency contraception. That it is out of the loop — that the insurers will have to deal directly with the students, faculty, and staff, bypassing the college health plans, which remain in force, so far as contraceptive coverage is concerned, only for the contraceptives that the college does not disapprove of on religious grounds."
Despite the religious objection provision, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — the legal group representing Wheaton — contends that the provision still violates the school's religious convictions.
"When you order somebody to provide something for the beneficiaries of my plan, you are using my plan," Mark Rienzi, a Becket Fund attorney, told the Tribune. "For the government to do that is to effectively change the terms of the plan."
Although the college is standing behind its moral objections, some students and alums disagree with the school's decision to nix health care coverage altogether.
"I just feel it is a very sad thing. Nobody is forcing anybody to go against their religious convictions," the Rev. Katherine Kallis, a 1962 Wheaton graduate, told the Tribune. "Wheaton is really overstepping its bounds."
Meanwhile, Wheaton senior Chris Prescher also dislikes the decision.
"I fear the administration is putting petty politics above caring for students," he said.
Chelsen said the school will set aside money to help students who will have trouble paying for an increase in the cost of alternative insurance coverage. Additionally, the school will consider the possibility of self-insured plans.
"I understand this is a tumultuous, unexpected decision, but we're hoping it's not long term," Chelsen said. "I can't make any promises. I don't want to raise expectations for something we can't provide. But we're going to give it our best shot."