…The University of San Diego, a Catholic university founded in 1949 by religious from the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, recently drew critical attention in the media for its student health plan, which covers abortion and transgender procedures.

In response to an inquiry from CNA, the university said it is required by state law to offer the coverage treatments the state law considers “health care.”

“As an independent, Catholic university operating in the state of California, the University of San Diego is obligated to align our student and employee health insurance plans with state law,” the University of San Diego (USD) told CNA in an Aug. 3 statement. “We encourage our community members to consult with their medical providers on the best course of treatment for any medical concern.”

Upon enrolling at the university, students, who are required by federal law to have health insurance, can sign up for a student health plan provided by Aetna or submit a waiver proving they are already insured.

According to the USD student plan’s benefits summary, 100% of the negotiated charge for abortion is included. The plan provides 80% of the cost for voluntary male sterilization. “Gender-affirming treatment” aims to affirm the identified gender, not the biological sex, of a self-identified transgender person. This treatment includes surgery (also known as a sex-change operation), hormone replacement therapy, and counseling, covered under the student health plan according to unspecified behavioral health coverage standards.

The university said that in fall 2022 about 1,600 students — about 18% of total enrollment — chose coverage under the university’s Aetna plan.

Like the University of San Diego, student health plans at the University of San Francisco and Loyola Marymount University appear to cover 100% of the costs of abortion. They cover 80% of the costs of voluntary male sterilization surgery as well as “gender-affirming treatment.”

Abortion is not listed as covered under the University of Santa Clara’s student health plan, but female sterilization and gender-affirming treatment are. A spokesperson for the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit institution, told CNA that its employee and student health plans “align with the requirements of California law.” Like the University of San Diego, the Santa Clara school is not considered a “religious employer” under the relevant state law and does not qualify for an exemption.

California’s redefinition of abortion as basic health care came in response to Catholic and pro-life advocates’ efforts to secure abortion-free health plans.

In 2013, Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University removed elective abortion from their employee health care plans. Officials at California’s Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates most health plans in California, initially approved the changes.

However, the move drew opposition from faculty and other abortion advocates. Santa Clara University faculty voiced their rejection of the changes to the health care plan by a vote of 215 to 89 in December 2013. According to court filings, lobbyists from Planned Parenthood wrote to the California Department of Health and Human Services to insist that agency rules be changed to force religious groups to provide coverage for elective abortions.

These legal victories, however, have not yet protected Catholic universities.

The University of San Diego told CNA that it does not qualify as a religious employer under the state statute.

“The University of San Diego is proud of its history and affiliation with the Catholic Church,” the university said. “Inspired by the centuries-old tradition of Catholic higher education, USD welcomes people of all faith traditions and any, or no, religious background to its community as students and employees. Because of this inclusive approach to education and employment, USD doesn’t fit the statute’s definition of a ‘religious employer….’”

“Most students remain on their parents’ plans until they are 26, so most have no need for an alternative plan,” Anna Velasco, vice president of human relations at John Paul the Great Catholic University in Escondido, told CNA.

“As mandated by law, we offer a variety of health plans for employees to choose from,” she said.

To the question of whether these health plans include coverage of abortion, male sterilization, and gender-affirming care, Velasco responded: “California plans, by law, unfortunately, include these objectionable services.”

Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula also does not provide a student health plan. Students are required to have their own health plan, and this is their parents’ health plan “in nearly all instances,” Chris Weinkopf, the college’s executive director of college relations, told CNA.

“The college provides full health care — which includes dental and vision care, as well as zero monthly premiums — to all its full-time employees and their families,” Weinkopf said. “We consider providing medical coverage an essential part of our character as a Catholic institution.”

However, this health plan isn’t bound by California rules mandating abortion because it is self-insuring — one of the few exemptions in California regulations. This means the employer funds its own health plan, collects premiums, and pays enrollee health claims.

“Since we self-insure, the college is exempt from California insurance law and regulations that require insurance coverage that is at odds with Catholic moral teaching,” Weinkopf said.

From Catholic News Agency