January 23, 2012 — Women's health advocates are commending the Obama administration's decision not to broaden a religious exemption to a new rule requiring that health plans cover contraceptive services without consumer cost-sharing, the AP/Washington Post reports (AP/Washington Post, 1/20).
HHS on Friday announced it would give certain religiously affiliated organizations -- such as colleges and hospitals -- an extra year to comply with the rule. The extension means the groups will have until Aug. 1, 2013, to begin providing the coverage (Pear, New York Times, 1/20). HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the decision "strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services" (AP/Washington Post, 1/20).
The rule is part of a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that will require health plans to cover certain preventive services -- including contraceptive services -- without copayments, coinsurance or deductibles. In announcing the rule in August, HHS proposed an exemption for not-for-profit groups that have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose, primarily employ individuals who hold certain religious beliefs and primarily serve a population with those religious tenets (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/23/11).
During the comment period on the law, Catholic hospitals, universities and organizations pressured HHS to create an even broader exemption that would allow them to refuse to cover contraception for their employees. Women's health advocates urged HHS to remove the exemption altogether and require all employers to cover contraception (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/2/11).
HHS reviewed more than 200,000 comments it received from interested parties about the rule (AP/Washington Post, 1/20). Sebelius said the one-year extension would apply to "nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan."
The extra year would give such employers time to "adapt to the new rule," she added (New York Times, 1/20). Administration officials said several religious organizations had complained that it would be difficult to comply with the new rules by the previous deadline (AP/Washington Post, 1/20).
Women's Health Advocates Support Decision
Many women's health groups issued statements on Friday praising the decision. NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan commended the administration for standing "firm against intensive lobbying efforts from anti-birth control organizations trying to expand the refusal option even further to allow organizations and corporations to deny their employees contraceptive coverage."
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America also praised HHS for not expanding the religious exemption, although it noted its opposition to any exemption, as well as the one-year extension (Feder, Politico, 1/20).
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, D.C., said, "Virtually all women from all religious backgrounds use contraception at some point in their lives to protect their health and plan their families and their lives," adding that the "administration refused to give religious employers the right to discriminate" (Rovner, "All Things Considered," NPR, 1/20).
Lawmakers who support women's access to reproductive health care also welcomed the decision. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) said, "For years there has been a relentless campaign to politicize women's health issues and it is endangering the health of women and their families. The administration deserves credit for standing its ground and following the science" (Aizenman, Washington Post, 1/20).
Catholic Groups Vow Legal Challenge
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pledged a legal challenge to the rule, Kaiser Health News reports (Carey/Kulkarni, Kaiser Health News, 1/20). Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB, said, "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences" (New York Times, 1/20). Sister Carol Keehan -- president of the Catholic Health Association, which represents about 600 Catholic hospitals -- said, "The challenge that these regulations posed for many groups remains unresolved" (AP/Washington Post, 1/20).
Conservative lawmakers and the Republican Policy Committee also decried the decision. An RPC statement said, "This ruling forces religious organizations to violate the fundamental tenets of their faith, or stop offering health insurance coverage to their employees" (Pecquet, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 1/20).