November 23, 2011 — Democratic lawmakers are urging the Obama administration to resist pressure to broaden a religious exemption to a new rule requiring health plans to cover contraceptive services without cost-sharing by policyholders, the Washington Post reports (Aizenman, Washington Post, 11/22).
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. The religious exemption applies to 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, 11/21).
Catholic hospitals, universities and other Catholic organizations want HHS to create an even broader exemption that would allow them to refuse to cover contraception for their employees. Two weeks ago, President Obama met with U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President Timothy Dolan to discuss the rule. According to the Post, Dolan's "upbeat comments" after the meeting and the White House's silence on the matter spurred concern among Democrats that the administration might side with the bishops.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, "What's baffling is not just the policy, but the political calculus here," adding, "The effect would be to undermine, if not eviscerate, the energy and enthusiasm of huge numbers of young people, women and independent voters who believe in the president."
Democrats argued in a conference call with White House officials on Tuesday that expanding the exemption would have devastating consequences for women's reproductive health care.
"I think in the 21st century, most people are stunned to hear that we would even be talking about whether women can buy birth control through their insurance policies," Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said. She added, "You would be denying millions of Americans the ability to have an essential part of their insurance coverage because of some attenuated religious affiliation of their employer."
According to the Post, it is unclear what new language the Obama administration might be considering. One option would be to exempt religiously affiliated not-for-profit groups -- including Catholic hospitals, universities and schools -- which would affect at least hundreds of thousands of employees (Washington Post, 11/22).