In an effort to block coverage for contraceptives, Wheaton College will no longer provide its students with health insurance. Effective Friday, nearly one quarter of the private Christian university's 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students will lose their coverage.
How and why this happened is kind of a long story.
At issue is the contraceptive requirement under the Affordable Care Act and Wheaton's role—or what it believes its role is—in providing birth control coverage for students. Wheaton's position is that certain birth control devices covered under the new mandate (specifically Plan B and both the hormonal and copper IUD) are abortion drugs and devices. (This is not a medically accurate belief.)
But as a religious non-profit, Wheaton isn't actually required to cover these methods of birth control. Instead, under the original accommodation of the healthcare law, Wheaton had the option to sign a form signaling to a third-party insurer that it had a religious objection to covering contraceptives, triggering the third-party insurer—the company that Wheaton contracts to provide insurance to students—to supply the coverage directly. Wheaton wouldn't have to pay for that coverage, either.
But Wheaton, in one of many suits filed by religious non-profits against the federal government for the same reason, argued that this accommodation still made it "play a central role in the government’s scheme" to provide birth control to its students. And just days after the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling—a 5-4 decision that said closely-held corporations could have a religious conscience and could, much like religious non-profits, opt-out of contraceptive coverage—the high court granted Wheaton a temporary exemption from the birth control requirement.
A month later, in August of 2014, the Obama administration attempted to appease Wheaton and other non-profits by retooling the accommodation: instead of signing a form that would go directly to the insurance company, they simply had to notify the government of an objection by, say, writing a letter.
But this too, Wheaton argued, made it complicit. Any action, even the act of notifying the government that it had declined to provide coverage, would trigger coverage. It's like the butterfly effect for birth control.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a lengthy and shade-throwing decision issued in July, wasn't buying this argument about complicity.
From the decision (emphasis in the original):
When Wheaton College tells us that it is being "forced" to allow "use" of its health plans to cover emergency contraceptives, it is wrong. 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.
The college doesn’t even have to inform the insurers of their obligation to provide coverage; the government as we said does that if the college has told the government that it refuses to provide the coverage.
In short, the court ruled that the accommodation is doing what it was established to do: allow Wheaton to opt-out of coverage for emergency contraceptives while still ensuring that students can access them. "Wheaton College does not want to be involved in the provision of emergency contraceptives," the court wrote, "pursuant to its wishes, it no longer is involved."
In response to being ordered to comply with the requirements of the accommodation, Wheaton shut down its student healthcare plan, which brings things back to the events of this week.
"What has brought us here is about student health insurance, but it's bigger than student health insurance," Wheaton's vice president of student development Paul Chelsen said in an announcement to students, according to a recording of the discussion obtained by the Chicago Tribune. "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.
"I acknowledge that students have been hurt by this decision and I regret that," he said.
So do many of Wheaton's students. "I fear the administration is putting petty politics above caring for students," Chris Prescher, a rising senior who said he would be unaffected by the change, told the Tribune.
Wheaton did not respond to Fusion's request for comment.