By Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH/East County Magazine
The Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to decide whether for-profit companies can be forced to provide full contraceptive coverage for their employees despite religious objections from their owners. Many people believe that health insurance is something offered by employers, a sort of bonus. In fact, it is part of what I have known as one’s “wage package.”
Wikipedia calls it “salary packaging: a term used to refer to the inclusion of employee benefits (also called fringe benefits) in an employee remuneration package in exchange for giving up part of monetary salary. Such arrangements are entered into most commonly if there are tax or other benefits to be derived by the employer or employee from the arrangement.” Employers calculate the total cost per employee, including salary, benefits, Workers’ Comp, unemployment insurance, employer’s share of FICA and Medicare, etc.
As health costs go up, employers have compensated by freezing or reducing increases in wages and/or cancelling health insurance, switching to reduced coverage and/or increasing employees’ share of premiums. While there are benefits to employer-sponsored health insurance, e.g. tax benefits, better coverage and lower rates for group coverage, the health insurance is paid for as a part of the employees’ overall remuneration package.
If employers can exclude birth control from health insurance coverage, an absurd thought would be if they somehow became aware that employees were purchasing birth control on their own could employers deduct the amount paid for the birth control from their salaries? Since health insurance is part of what an employee has earned, I see no difference. Carried to its logical extreme, could an employer who is a Jehovah’s Witness exclude blood transfusions? How about an employer who is a Scientologist excluding psychiatric coverage? Or what about a Christian Scientist covering only the faith’s own healers?
This is not about First Amendment freedom of religion. It is about employers deciding how the earnings of an employee should be spent. It is about an employer imposing his or her religious values on employees. How much control over employees’ personal lives and choices should an employer have?
Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH. a native San Diegan, is a semi-retired epidemiologist with a long time interest in social causes, currently focusing on establishing a single-payer health care system.