Senate Hearing Recalls Religious Liberty Lost for Health Professionals

Ethics and principles are pesky things. They never go away, and can rear up and bite you when you least expect it.

Such should be the case for Mike Bettiga, former President of the Wisconsin Pharmacy Examining Board who has been asked by Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights to testify at a hearing on Tuesday, December 6 on the Express Scripts/Medco Merger.

Mr. Bettiga, a pharmacist by trade, is now Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Shopko Stores, a retail chain headquartered in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Shopko has 135 stores in thirteen northern tier states and California, and a robust retail pharmacy division.

Express Scripts and Medco Health Solutions are two of the country’s largest pharmacy benefit managers – companies that administer prescription drugs benefits for insurers, large employers, government agencies and unions. The two recently proposed a merger which is currently under review by our government. Proponents claim the merger would provide economies of scale, which, in turn, would lower consumer costs.

Opponents, which include some drug store chains, have used trendy Occupy Wall Street-lite catch phrases such as “windfall profits,” “corporate control,” and the dreaded “wasteful mail order spending problem” to bolster their anti-merger case.

Good idea or bad? I dunno. However, as Senator Kohl named the hearing “Cost Savings for Consumers or More Profits for the Middleman?” we can guess where he stands. Although I have no dog in the Express Scripts/Medco merger fight, if Senator Kohl is against it, I’m probably for it.

Presumably Mr. Bettiga doesn’t like the idea either as he was hand-picked by Sen. Kohl to testify. My concern, shared by many in the social conservative movement, is not the merger – it is Mr. Bettiga himself.

In 2002, Neil Noesen, a Wisconsin pharmacist who is a devout Roman Catholic, refused to fill a prescription for contraceptives because of faith-based conscientious objections. Mr. Noesen was clear that for him, any action on his part that would be materially participating in enabling a person to obtain contraceptives is a sin.

As it was not a state that had codified the right of a pharmacist to refuse to fill prescriptions based on religious objections, and even though the pharmacist had not broken any state laws or regulatory codes, Wisconsin went after Mr. Noesen.

He believed it was a question of religious freedom, individual liberty, and First Amendment Rights. The Wisconsin Pharmacy Examining Board did not.

The assault on Mr. Noesen’s religious freedom and Constitutional protections – and the principles in general – was led by the Pharmacy Board’s chairman, Mike Bettiga. In April of 2005, and under his leadership, the Board issued a ruling that not just blocked Noesen’s ability to perform his job by limiting his pharmacist license – it required Noesen to take courses in ethics (ironically) and pay the $20,000+ costs incurred by the Pharmacy Examining Board to persecute the pharmacist in the first place.

Appeals and lawsuits and all kinds of messy proceedings ensued with Catholic Bishops and Wisconsin-based and national social conservative organizations weighing in on the matter, such as the Alliance Defense Fund, which assisted Mr. Noesen on the legal side. Since this episode brought America’s culture wars to the forefront, groups including Concerned Women for America and Americans United for Life have been advocating for the important and broader concepts this case represented – ensuring protections for healthcare professionals who have conscientious objections to medications or procedures.

The three Republicans on this Judiciary Subcommittee – Mike Lee of Utah, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas, are three of the Senate’s strongest defenders of life and the individual expression of religious freedom. What will they think when Mr. Bettiga, with his historical lack of concern for such rights crystal clear, appears before them?

At best, and regardless of what time Mr. Bettiga is testifying, I hope they’ll take their lunch break. Or at least let him know that freedom does matter, and those who support religious and individual liberty will not be forgetting the Noesen case and its implications any time soon.

Godly and Constitutional ethics and principles don’t change with time or Presidents or new heads of regulatory bodies. Perhaps next Tuesday is the ideal time for a reminder.

As Grandpa always said, “it’s the principal of the thing.”

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