By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Keystone Mercy Health Plan, as featured in an Oct. 1 story in The Catholic Standard & Times, performs a valuable and necessary public service. It is the largest government-funded Medicaid health plan in the region, serving hundreds of thousands of low income people. Many of them would otherwise be uninsured.

A health management organization (HMO), it is a partnership between a secular entity, Blue Cross, and a Catholic entity operated by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, AmeriHealth Mercy.

This arrangement creates problems. Although it most certainly covers maternity care for many poor expectant mothers, it also covers abortions, under certain conditions.

Because Medicaid is partly funded by the federal government it is subject to the restrictions of the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds for abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.

Some states allow any abortions through Medicaid by picking up the entire abortion funding themselves. Pennsylvania does not; only those abortions allowed by the Hyde Amendment are funded, although there is some question how closely the Hyde Amendment prohibition is monitored.

In a letter published Nov. 5 in The Catholic Standard & Times, Dr. George Isajiw, a former president of the Philadelphia Catholic Physicians Guild, wrote, “When confronted, administrators of this program have either denied this fact or stated that since the plan is jointly owned by Mercy Health System and Independence Blue Cross, it is ‘only’ the Blue Cross portion that is used to pay for abortions.”

“I was taught that we can never do evil,” he wrote, “in order to achieve a good.”

Keith Eckert, a spokesperson for AmeriHealth Mercy, responded: “AmeriHealth Mercy understands the issues brought up by some of your readers. We make sure our work for the underserved adheres to the teachings of the Church and its leaders. Every day, we help hundreds of thousands of the poorest and sickest people in our communities get care, stay well and build healthy communities. Our members come from spanerse backgrounds and are eligible by federal and state law to receive some services that are not in alignment with Church doctrine. These services are not funded or provided by AmeriHealth Mercy.”

Pennsylvania does allow a conscience clause for both medical facilities and insurance plans who do not wish, for reasons of conscience, to perform or fund abortions, according to attorney Rich Connell of Ball, Murren & Connell, counsel for both the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association.

“We try to look at issues any time there is a hint of mandated coverage where there should be a conscience clause,” he said.

But Keystone Mercy appears unique in that it is a partnership of a secular entity and a Catholic entity. If, as Keystone Mercy claims, requests for abortion (subject to Hyde Amendment restrictions) are handled only by the Keystone half of the partnership, “there is still some concern and a potential to create scandal,” Connell said. “I don’t see how they reconcile that.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.

Local pharmacies say no to contraceptives

Catholic medical facilities do exercise the conscience clause and refuse to perform or facilitate abortions, as do some other health-related facilities.

Take for example Tom Fortunato, who operates Squire Drugs on Baltimore Pike in Springfield, Delaware County. Like most druggists, he used to sell contraceptives. But it became a real problem about two years ago when “Plan B,” a drug also known as the “morning after pill,” was introduced. Because it is taken after intercourse, it is a contraceptive only until the point the ovum is fertilized. If it destroys a fertilized egg after conception it is really an abortifacient, not a contraceptive.

Fortunato, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Warrington, not only refused to sell Plan B, he no longer sells any contraceptives.

Has it hurt his business? “Yes, with some people, but I made up for it with others who started coming because of this,” he said.

At the Medicine Shoppe in Jeffersonville, Montgomery County, operated as a franchise by Visitation B.V.M. parishioners Henrietta and David Cole, Plan B is not sold. “We don’t get calls for it and we don’t handle it out of ethical concerns,” said Henrietta Cole.

– Lou Baldwin