Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh files suit over FOIA request

Claims barriers created for inquiry into 'Obamacare'


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Federal health officials broke federal laws by stonewalling legal attempts to learn how they created new rules requiring employers to pay for insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortion, according to lawyers representing the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, lawyers for the diocese, including its Catholic Charities group and its Catholic Cemeteries Association, claim federal administrators of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention purposely created extraordinary and illegal barriers to their client obtaining public information about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Months after requesting information in September about how federal officials decided what contraceptive procedures and medications should be covered under the mandate -- and to what extent religious entities must comply with providing insurance coverage for them -- the diocese's lawyers were told fulfilling the requests would take three to five years and could cost them more than $1.8 million, according to Mickey Pohl, who is representing the diocese's legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act on religious grounds.

In the process, federal officials violated the Freedom of Information Act, which requires government officials to provide public information in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost, he said.

"Just because it's a politically sensitive issue, the people at HHS shouldn't decide they're above the law and try to stonewall the provision of material requested under the Freedom of Information Act," Mr. Pohl said. "The law was written and it doesn't favor either side -- it's just a good thing for citizens to get information that is not privileged."

The diocese is one of about 60 individuals, organizations and universities, including the dioceses of New York and Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Notre Dame University, being represented by Mr. Pohl and other attorneys at Jones Day, Downtown, in their lawsuits against the federal government's new insurance requirements.

Under current rules, any entity seeking an exemption from the regulations must prove that its purpose is to inculcate religious values, that it primarily employs and serves people who share its religious tenets, and that it is a nonprofit.

A spokesman for the federal health department said administrators don't comment on pending litigation. He also was not able to provide information on how many FOIA requests the department typically receives each year or how long it typically takes to fulfill them.

In challenging the requirements in the Affordable Care Act -- commonly called "Obamacare" -- on behalf of his clients, Mr. Pohl asked the health department for 11 items, according to the lawsuit filed Monday: communications in advance of the issuance of the rules and religious employer exemptions, documents regarding women's preventative health care, documents regarding other exemptions or waivers from the act's requirements, documents regarding the one-year safe harbor from the act's requirements and information regarding the role of the Institute of Medicine -- a nongovernmental group that helped develop the guidelines for preventive care that ultimately included all federally approved contraceptives.

President Barack Obama's administration, and in particular Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, was heavily lobbied as those rules were being written, according to Mr. Pohl. Among those lobbyists were representatives of pharmaceutical companies who stood to benefit financially by increased coverage of contraceptives, he said.

"We think there has been a wide variety of groups trying to influence the administration to keep the sterilization, contraception and abortion pill parts of the mandate, and we're trying to find out what the communication has been back and forth to HHS, and the reason HHS is fighting religious organizations so hard not to change the preventative care mandate," Mr. Pohl said. "We want to know who's been lobbying the secretary of Health and Human Services to influence this decision."

After months of correspondence -- department officials declined all his attempts to meet in person -- administrators lowered the bill to $25,000 in FOIA processing charges, Mr. Pohl said. But they never wavered from their claim that supplying the information he requested would take at least three years, even if he narrowed the scope of his request, he said.

"Plaintiff cannot wait three years or longer for a response to his requests and has made every reasonable effort to assist the Government in responding to appropriate requests," the lawsuit states. "Yet, the Government has not been cooperative. In fact, it has been patently uncooperative."

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Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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