Company fighting mandate

BEAVERTOWN – A Lancaster County-based company with two Snyder County factories will know next week whether it will receive a lengthier injunction in its case challenging the birth control mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.”

On Dec. 28, Conestoga Wood Specialties received a 14-day reprieve from being forced to either include coverage of birth control in its health care plan or pay fines of $95,000 per day – $100 for each of the company’s 950 employees.

That injunction expires this coming week, according to Randall Wenger, one of the company’s lawyers.

After hearing oral arguments Friday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Judge Berle Schiller is expected to issue a ruling on a preliminary injunction, which would last until the outcome of the case is determined, Wenger said.

Wenger said he was confident the company would be successful in its request for the lengthier injunction.

“I think things went well,” Wenger said. “It seemed like the judge understood the issues well and we’re hopeful for a good result.”

Conestoga Wood Specialties, which has operations in Beavertown and Beaver Springs, alleges in a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 4 that the mandate, which requires most employers to offer health insurance that covers contraception, would “be sinful and immoral” to participate in due to the owners’ Mennonite religious beliefs, the lawsuit said.

“(Conestoga) provides health insurance benefits to their employees that omits coverage of abortifacient drugs,” the lawsuit reads. “The plan renews each year on Jan. 1 … creating the very real potential for harm to the plaintiffs and their sincerely-held religious beliefs if forced to include such coverage.”

In addition to religious benefits, in the short term, not covering birth control can also save companies money, said Geisinger Health Plan spokeswoman Amy Bowen.

“Generally as a rule of thumb, every time coverage is added, so is cost,” she said. “Adding birth control would add cost to the base of an insurance plan.”

However, there is a long-term economic advantage to offering birth control coverage, according to national studies. A 2000 study by the National Business Group on Health found that not covering contraception cost employers 15 to 17 percent more through medical and other pregnancy-related costs, including employee absence.

Insurance coverage of birth control also saves employees money. On average, insured women pay about $14 for a monthly package of birth control, while uninsured women can pay an average of $60 for a monthly supply, according to a 2011 Guttmacher Institute report.

But Wenger said the issue is not economic for Conestoga and is based solely on the religious beliefs of the company’s owners.

“People should not have to be giving up their ability to carry out business according to their religious beliefs,” he said.

Schiller also acknowledged that another complication in the case is that other lawsuits have produced mixed results on the issue, with both wins and losses for opponents of the birth control mandate, which has led to 43 lawsuits across the nation.

“Courts from outside the circuit who have considered the issues raised here have reached different results,” Schiller wrote.

Several companies, such as Conestoga, have been granted temporary injunctions, including Weingartz Supply Co., a Catholic-owned, Michigan-based company that sells outdoor power equipment, and Missouri-based Sharpe Holdings, a dairy farming and cheese-making business. Both rulings also cited the need for further fact-finding of the issues before making a permanent decision.

Other petitions for injunctions have been denied, including one by Oklahoma-based craft chain Hobby Lobby.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also become involved, filing a friend of the court argument Wednesday opposing Conestoga’s motion for an injunction, saying the birth control mandate helps promote equality in the workplace.

“The impact of the inability to access contraception falls primarily on women,” the brief states. “Access to contraception gives women control of their fertility, enabling them to decide whether and when to become a parent, and allowing women to make educational and employment choices that benefit them and their families.

“Women’s ability to pursue professional careers because of the ability to control whether and when to have children serves to close the wage gap between men and women.”

Conestoga’s refusal to provide employees with birth control coverage is a form of discrimination, the brief states.

“(Conestoga’s) argument is based on the incorrect notion that religion can be used as a license to discriminate,” the brief states.