Pittsburgh Catholic diocese sues feds for ‘patently uncooperative’ response to FOIA request

Several months after the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh filed a freedom of information request with the federal government to learn how mandatory contraceptive coverage became part of the new federal health-care plan, the government said it would need five years and $1.8 million dollars to meet the request.

Now the diocese is suing the government for being “patently uncooperative” and violating the Freedom of Information Act, which requires government officials provide public information quickly and at a reasonable cost, according to the  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Diocese attorney Paul “Mickey” Pohl filed the lawsuit July 1 claiming the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intentionally created illegal barriers to bar the diocese from public information about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

“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,” Pohl told the Post-Gazette.

His lawsuit alleges that since he filed his FOI request in September, government officials have denied parts of his request and refused to meet with him personally to help him clarify or streamline it, according to the Associated Press. Even when officials allegedly lowered the charge to about $25,000, they limited the information they were willing to provide and said some of the information would still take three years to collect.

Pohl, who represents the Diocese in their challenge to the health-care plan, originally requested 11 items. According to the Post-Gazette, they include:

  • 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
  • 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

Pohl told the Post-Gazette the request aimed at revealing whether Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was heavily lobbied by representatives of pharmaceutical companies who hoped to benefit financially from the contraceptive coverage.

“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,” Pohl told the Post-Gazette. “We want to know who’s been lobbying the secretary of Health and Human Services to influence this decision.”

The 2010 federal health care overhaul takes full effect next year, and the government has yet to disclose whether the diocese will be exempt from providing employee insurance coverage for contraception, the AP said.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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