April 9, 2013 — Monday's deadline for public comments on proposed exemptions to the federal contraceptive coverage rules sparked a fresh wave of debate among supporters and opponents of the plan, CQ HealthBeat reports (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 4/8). The proposal has received more comments "than any other regulatory proposal on any subject government-wide," according to the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group (Howell, Washington Times, 4/8).
The contraceptive coverage rules, which are being implemented under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148), require that most health plans cover contraceptive services. Religious entities such as churches and other houses of worship are exempt from the requirements.
In February, the Obama administration proposed an accommodation for other religiously affiliated employers that would ensure that their health plans do not have to pay for contraceptive coverage. The accommodation would not apply to for-profit businesses (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/8).
Contraceptive Coverage Rules To Be Finalized, Sebelius Says
Despite the ongoing debate over the proposal, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Monday said the agency plans to move forward to finalize the plan and continue implementing the rules (CQ HealthBeat, 4/8).
"As of Aug. 1, 2013, every employee who doesn't work directly for a church or a diocese will be included in the benefit package," she said at a Harvard School of Public Health forum.
Sebelius added, "We think (the proposal) upholds the religious beliefs of some, but does not impose religious views on an employee who may or may not share those religious beliefs" (Washington Times, 4/8). However, she acknowledged that "there's a debate going on in court" and that the Supreme Court could ultimately decide the issue.
Women's Advocacy Groups Submit 350,000 Comments
Women's groups that support the contraceptive coverage rules solicited and submitted 350,000 comments to HHS from women in 50 states and the District of Columbia. The groups leveraged support through social media, they said on Monday during a conference call with reporters.
Supporters said their online campaign was particularly well-received among younger women and college women. "Energy on this [issue] is deep and wide," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said she is "very pleased" that the Obama administration supports the inclusion of birth control as a preventive service that health plans must cover under the ACA. She said it would be "unacceptable" to allow employers to determine whether women's birth control should be covered.
Opponents Voice Objections
Meanwhile, opponents of the contraceptive coverage rules continued to call for broader exemptions for employers with religious objections to birth control.
"Anything short of protecting the freedoms of conscience and religious expression for all Americans, not merely houses of worship and their integrated auxiliaries, is unacceptable," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (CQ HealthBeat, 4/8).