Helena Diocese Dropping Group Insurance Plans

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena is dropping group health insurance plans for its 200 employees in parishes, schools and social services across western Montana, a spokesman for the diocese said.

Instead, the diocese will help those workers find individual insurance coverage on the market, and compensate them within limits when they purchase their own plans, diocese spokesman Dan Bartleson said Wednesday. The diocese plans to make the change by January, he said.

Across the nation, some religious groups and schools are dropping or have threatened to drop insurance coverage because they do not agree with the new health care law’s mandate to provide coverage for birth control. But in the case of the Helena diocese, the decision was strictly financial, Bartleson said.

He said premiums were rising as the diocese tried to cover this year’s claims, and that costs would also increase because of the federal health overhaul.

“The increases with the health care law were so dramatic that we couldn’t in good conscience pass them on to employees,” he said.

The cost of care per employee is expensive for the diocese because of the number of elderly and retired clergy and other workers, Bartleson said. The diocese used more than 100 percent of its available benefits last year partly for that reason, he said.

The diocese also is defending itself against multiple lawsuits filed by hundreds of plaintiffs who claim they were sexually abused as children by clergy stretching back to the 1940s. The lawsuits are in mediation with hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement, but the diocese’s insurers are challenging whether they should be responsible for paying the plaintiffs’ claims.

The litigation has created uncertainty and caused the Helena diocese to be conservative in its financial planning.

“That mediation is a major factor in the future of this diocese,” Bartleson said. “What we’re trying to do here is to make the best of the changes in the health care laws, while in the back of all our minds is this mediation.”

The diocese’s plans will not be affected by President Barack Obama’s announcement Thursday that he intends to allow the continued sale of individual insurance plans that have been canceled because they don’t meet coverage standards under the new law, Bartleson said.

Human-resource officials are counseling their employees on what individual plans are being offered in the market, including the new federal health exchange, and telling them the amount the diocese will compensate them for buying their own coverage.

Bartleson did not disclose the cap the diocese will put on reimbursements, but said the goal is for them to have at least equivalent coverage of what they get now.

“There is no guarantee of that, though. That is something that is going to have to shake out,” Bartleson said.

It is difficult to gauge whether the diocese is unique in making these changes or whether it is happening elsewhere. Tim Augustine, legal counsel for insurer Catholic Mutual Group, declined to comment Thursday, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Montana’s other Roman Catholic diocese, the Great Falls-Billings diocese that covers the eastern part of the state, is considering its options on future employee health coverage, said the Rev. Jay Peterson, the diocese’s vicar general.

State Insurance Commissioner Monica Lindeen’s spokeswoman, Jennifer McKee, said her office is not aware of any other group insurance cancellations in the state by employers with more than 50 employees.

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