Mercy Health, one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the nation, is considering extending same-sex benefits to its more than 40,000 employees in seven states.
Officials with the Chesterfield-based health system said they are weighing the move to comply with President Barack Obama’s health law and other federal programs. They did not disclose when the change would take effect.
In a statement sent Tuesday, Mercy said: “Currently we are exploring how best to expand health care benefits for our co-workers, their dependents and loved ones across our seven-state service area to help address their varied family situations and so as not to be out of compliance with requirements of the Affordable Care Act and other federal programs.”
The move is controversial because Mercy is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes gay marriage and the social acceptance of same-sex relationships.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis already weighed in on Mercy’s move, criticizing the federal government for putting Catholic businesses in a tough spot.
“It is simply inconsistent to claim to be a Catholic institution while publicly acting against Church teaching,” the Archdiocese of St. Louis said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch. “Today, however, Catholic institutions face sanctions from the American government for fidelity to their Catholic identity.”
The statement added that failure to comply with federal regulations would result “in crippling penalties that would gravely impact Mercy’s employees and patient care.”
Bishop James V. Johnston, of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, was less accommodating and said he was “deeply concerned” by the move, in a statement posted on the diocesan website. Johnston posted the statement after a local news report that Mercy planned to make the change at its hospital in Springfield, Mo.
Legal experts, however, say it’s open to interpretation whether certain federal laws and regulations apply in Mercy’s case.
“There is no mandate on the health care side that you have to provide coverage to a same-sex spouse under the (Affordable Care Act),” said Thomas Dowling, a Kansas City-based partner and lawyer at Stinson Leonard Street.
However, in July of last year, Obama signed an executive order that barred federal contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Mercy would not be the first Catholic health care system to offer same-sex benefits. In fact, SSM Health, based in Creve Coeur, began offering these benefits to employees more than a decade ago.
The benefits were extended to “legally domiciled adults.” To qualify for the benefit, SSM requires the individual live in the same home with the employee, be a member of the employee’s household and be at least 19 years old.
“We have been able to extend health care coverage to hundreds of adult spouses, parents, children, and friends who reside with an employee and are not otherwise insured,” SSM spokesman Steve Van Dinter said.
There’s an interesting dichotomy between health systems’ philosophy caring for patients and employees, said Tari Hanneman, associate director of health and aging program for the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights advocacy group.
“Most of them understand that a patient is a patient,” Hanneman said, “and they try to treat everyone equally and justly.”
So Hanneman said it only makes sense that faith-based health systems start being more inclusive of employees.
State and federal judges struck down Missouri’s decade-long ban on gay marriage last year, but couples currently can only get marriage licenses in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Same-sex couples can marry in 36 states and the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case this year that could clear the way for gay marriages to be recognized across the country. A decision is expected in June.