Pa. diocese atty. sues feds over Obamacare FOIA

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PITTSBURGH – The federal government is stonewalling the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in its fight against some health insurance reforms that church officials say conflict with doctrine, including a charge of $1.8 million and up to five years to respond to records requests, a lawyer for the church says in a new lawsuit.


The suit was filed by attorney Paul “Mickey” Pohl in ongoing litigation over whether the diocese will be exempted from providing employee insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion under the 2010 federal health care overhaul, which takes full effect next year.


The lawsuit contends the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have blocked the church’s efforts to obtain records under the Freedom Of Information Act showing how the regulations were developed and whether religious employers will be exempted.


“Defendants’ actions show a shocking disregard for their obligations as government officials to comply with the law,” Pohl said in the lawsuit filed late Monday. It was first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is defending the lawsuit, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.


The diocese, which serves about 700,000 Catholics in six Southwestern Pennsylvania counties, is one of about 60 faith-based agencies across the country that sued federal agencies over concerns that they’ll not be given a religious exemption to provide insurance for procedures and drugs they deem immoral.


The diocese filed a lawsuit last year that called the mandates an “unprecedented government infringement on the religious liberties of religious organizations.” A federal judge in Pittsburgh dismissed that lawsuit in November, saying he didn’t have jurisdiction because the regulations haven’t taken effect and the government has said rules to exempt the religious groups were still being developed.


The diocese has appealed that ruling, in part, because church officials contend they’re being forced to plan or make decisions for future employee coverage with no guarantee of such an exemption.


Pohl’s FOIA requests, originally made in September, were aimed at gathering 11 types of records including government communications about developing the religious exemptions and the Institute of Medicine, a nongovernment group that helped develop guidelines that included regulations mandating coverage of federally approved contraceptives.


Pohl did not immediately return requests for comment Tuesday, but told the Post-Gazette the Obama administration was heavily lobbied by pharmaceutical firms that would benefit from mandatory insurance coverage of contraceptives as preventative care.


“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 mandates,” Pohl told the newspaper.


The new lawsuit says government officials eventually lowered the FOIA processing charges to about $25,000 but that covers a fraction of the information Pohl requested. The lawsuit contends the government has been unwilling to meet with Pohl personally to clarify and perhaps streamline his requests and that it could still take the government three years to provide some information.


“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 said. “Yet the government has not been cooperative. In fact, it has been patently uncooperative.”


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