The Obama administration proposed a way Friday that women working for religious nonprofits could receive free birth-control coverage without mandating that their employers pay for it.
The plan, issued almost a year after a similar proposal by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), reignited the controversy over how contraception is handled in President Obama’s health-care reform. The administration faces dozens of legal challenges by religious nonprofits, including Roman Catholic schools and hospitals, which said the original plan would violate their religious liberty.
In the new proposal, women would receive birth-control coverage through a separate insurance plan that their employer would not pay for. The insurer would provide the coverage free of charge and would recoup its costs by paying a lower fee for inclusion on the health-insurance exchanges that are being set up online. Preventive care would also presumably result in lower health-care costs to insurers down the road.
“Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers, and others to achieve these goals.”
Under the previous proposal, religious groups complained that the exemption from paying for contraception was too narrow. The proposal released Friday offered a new definition of “religious employers,” following the definition used by the Internal Revenue Service, which covers all houses of worship and affiliated institutions, such as schools and hospitals.
Some religious organizations did not reject the new plan outright, while others did.
“We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely,” Cardinal Dolan said in a statement. “We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.”
But the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the legal group representing many of the religious institutions that are suing the administration, rejected the proposal.
“Today’s proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans,” said Kyle Duncan, general counsel at the Becket Fund. “The rights of family businesses like Hobby Lobby are still being violated,” he added, referring to a craft company whose owners have chosen, for religious reasons, not to include emergency contraception in the health insurance they offer employees.
In addition to companies whose core activity is not religious, like Hobby Lobby, the Becket Fund represents numerous religious colleges and universities in their lawsuits against the administration. Some of the cases are expected to reach the US Supreme Court.
Religious institutions that “self-insure” on health care – those that pay for health care themselves instead of contracting with an insurance company – could use a third-party administrator to obtain separate policies for employees who want birth-control coverage, HHS said.
The National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) rejected HHS’s plan, saying the administration was changing the “packaging” of its proposal to try to conceal “continuity in substance.”
“This latest revision continues to compel countless employers to purchase health plans that will pay for drugs and procedures to which they are opposed on moral and religious grounds,” NRLC said in a statement.
Advocates of birth control applauded the HHS announcement.
“This policy delivers on the promise of women having access to birth control without co-pays no matter where they work,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement. “Of course, we are reviewing the technical aspects of this proposal, but the principle is clear and consistent. This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control.”