February 10, 2012 — 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, President Obama announced on Friday in response to criticism of new federal rules, CNN reports (Silverleib, CNN, 2/10).
According to a White House fact sheet, "Contraception coverage will be offered to women [at religiously affiliated institutions] by their employers' insurance companies directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception." Religious employers will not have to subsidize the coverage (Ferraro, Reuters, 2/10).
Obama said, "No woman's health should depend on who she is, or where she works, or how much money she makes." He added that the "principle of religious liberty" also is at stake in the issue and that "[a]s a citizen and a Christian, I cherish this right" (CNN, 2/10).
A senior administration official said that changes are an "accommodation" to religious employers who objected to federal rules requiring employers to cover contraception (McCarthy, National Journal, 2/10).
The debate over the contraceptive coverage rules has erupted into a political firestorm in recent weeks, fueled by charges from the Catholic bishops that the Obama administration was infringing on the religious freedom of church-affiliated institutions by not exempting them from the rules.
The rules implement a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles. Originally, the administration exempted certain religious employers -- such as houses of worship -- from the contraception coverage requirement but not religiously affiliated organizations with more general missions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/9).
Officials from the Catholic Health Association and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America both said they are satisfied with the new rules. "The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," CHA President Carol Keehan said in a statement.
Cecile Richards, president of the PPFA, said, "We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits" (Feller, AP/Newsday, 2/10).
Administration officials acknowledged that the changes likely would not satisfy the Catholic bishops or quell criticism from congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates (Cooper, New York Times, 2/10). The bishops have said they would be satisfied with nothing less than a complete reversal of the contraceptive coverage rules (Wolf/Grossman, USA Today, 2/9).
Details of Announcement
Administration officials said the president has the authority to require insurers to directly reach out to women and provide the coverage at no cost (AP/Newsday, 2/10). The administration said a final rule published in the Federal Register on Friday would implement a one-year transition period, during which it would "propose and finalize a new regulation ... to address the religious objections of the non-exempted religious organizations."
Under that regulation, "[c]ontraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers' insurance companies directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception" and "[i]nsurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge," the administration said (Reuters, 2/10). White House officials said the new policy preserves the intent of contraceptive coverage rules -- that women have access to contraceptive services without copayments or deductibles.
They said insurance companies will save money by offering the coverage because it will improve women's health. AP/Newsday notes that "the plan is likely to meet resistance from insurers" (AP/Newsday, 2/10).
Suggestions Made Thursday
Friday's announcement came after Vice President Biden on Thursday suggested possible changes were in the works in an interview with Cincinnati radio station WLW (Epstein, Politico, 2/9). Biden said the administration wanted to find a solution to "make sure women who need access to birth control are not denied that" and "the church is able to be consistent with its teachings." He added, "As a practicing Catholic, I am of the view that this can be worked out and should be worked out and I know the president feels the same way" (Meckler/Lee, Wall Street Journal, 2/10).
Biden said there has been "a lot of misunderstanding" among opponents who do not acknowledge that the yearlong transition period will allow the administration to work with them on implementation (Parnes, The Hill, 2/9).
Also on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blocked an attempt by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to attach an amendment to a highway funding bill that would repeal the contraceptive rule, National Journal reports (McCarthy, National Journal, 2/9).
Catholic Bishops, Republicans Rally Behind Contraceptive Opposition
The Catholic bishops began laying the groundwork for a major campaign against the birth control requirement more than seven months ago, according to the New York Times.
"I have never seen the bishops mobilize so quickly," Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, said, adding that the bishops "really are convinced that this is a direct abridgement of their First Amendment religion rights" (Goodstein, New York Times, 2/9).
The issue has also rallied Republicans around central GOP themes, such as religious freedom. According to Politico, Republicans "welcome" the debate because it helps them play up "culture war issues" rather than discussing the economy, a topic on which Republicans have struggled to provide a unified message (Allen, Politico, 2/9).