February 13, 2012 — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has rejected changes that President Obama announced on Friday to contraceptive coverage rules and has pledged to continue pushing for a complete end to the policy, the Washington Post reports (Brown, Washington Post, 2/11).
Under the changes announced on Friday, religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their health insurance companies will be required to provide the coverage directly to women at no charge. Obama made the announcement in the face of intense criticism from the Catholic bishops that his administration was infringing on the religious freedom of church-affiliated institutions by not exempting them from offering contraceptive coverage.
Under a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148), health plans are required to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles. Originally, the administration exempted certain religious employers -- such as houses of worship -- from covering contraceptive services for their employees, but it did not exempt religiously affiliated organizations with more general missions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/10).
USCCB in a statement on Friday said the White House's solution is "unacceptable and must be corrected" because it still infringes on Catholics' rights of religious freedom and conscience (Goodstein, New York Times, 2/11). USCCB said that it will continue to push for a full repeal of the contraceptive coverage rules "with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency" than if no changes had been made (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 2/11). "The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for [HHS] to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services," the group added (Brown, Washington Post, 2/11).
The bishops could face a rift with other Catholic groups that supported the adjustments announced Friday, including Catholic Charities, Catholics United, some Catholic Democrats and the Catholic Health Association, which represents Catholic hospitals. James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, said, "The bishops' blanket opposition appears to serve the interests of a political agenda, not the needs of the American people" (New York Times, 2/11).
Women's Groups Praise White House Plan
Women's health advocates praised the White House plan as accommodating religious institutions that oppose contraception while still ensuring that women can access contraception, National Journal reports.
Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "The most important thing is that the administration is ensuring that every woman who needs coverage for contraception can have it."
Women's groups said they would watch closely as the administration moves forward with final language for the rule. "It is very important to us that you not stigmatize the women who work for these hospitals, universities and nonprofit organizations," National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill said. "It really matters how they implement it," she added (Sanger-Katz, National Journal, 2/10).
White House Officials, Opponents React on Sunday Talk Shows
White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew defended the president's plan during multiple appearances on Sunday talk shows (Miller, Roll Call, 2/12). He said that Obama found the "right balance" between protecting women's health and their employers' religious freedom. He also said the changes would not increase costs for insurance companies (Savage, "Politics Now," Los Angeles Times, 2/12).
When asked on CNN's "State of the Union with Candy Crowley" whether Obama would make additional accommodations for religious groups, Lew said, "No. This is our plan." He added, "I have to say that the solution that we came up with puts no religious institution in a position where it either has to pay for or facilitate the provision of benefits they find objectionable" (Favole/Barnes, "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 2/12).
On PBS' "NewsHour," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that the National Business Council on Health, government actuaries and group health plans "say having contraception as part of group insurance plan actually lowers the overall cost." When asked whether insurers have accepted their role of having to directly offer the coverage to women at no cost, Sebelius said that HHS "will define the rules under which we offer these benefits" and that officials are "confident that this works and that insurers are prepared to step up and do this" (Suarez, "NewsHour," PBS, 2/10).
On CBS' "Face the Nation," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he would continue to press for legislation that would allow employers with religious or moral objections to not offer contraceptive coverage for employees. "We'll be voting on that in the Senate, and you can anticipate that would happen as soon as possible," McConnell said, adding, "This issue will not go away until the administration simply backs down" (Savage, Los Angeles Times, 2/12).
A few legislative options are pending, including a bill (S 2092) by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would exempt employers with any "moral conviction" -- not only religious objections -- from offering contraceptive coverage or having to engage in "government-mandated speech" about contraceptive services. Another measure (S 1467), sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), would allow health plans to deny coverage of specific services that are against the insurer's religious beliefs without violating the health reform law (Ethridge, CQ Today, 2/10).
Such measures could face a tougher road in the Democratic-controlled Senate than in the House. House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on ABC News' "This Week" that House Republicans "absolutely" have enough votes to pass a measure allowing an insurer or employer with religious or moral objections to be exempt from the contraceptive coverage rules (Calmes, "The Caucus," New York Times, 2/12).