HHS rejects broader religious exceptions to contraception mandate

The Obama administration said Friday that it will not provide broad exceptions to the contraception mandate in its signature healthcare law.

The Health and Human Services Department rejected calls to let any employer opt out of the mandate based on religious objections to contraception. But the department took new steps to remove religiously affiliated employers from the process of paying for their employees' contraception coverage.

ADVERTISEMENT
The administration had announced last year that it would allow religiously affiliated nonprofits — for example, Catholic hospitals and universities — to avoid paying for birth control directly. Friday's regulations clarify the process through which those employers' insurance companies will offer birth control outside of the employers' healthcare plans.

While early reports cast the move as a concession to religious organizations, it seemed to do little to change the battle lines between religious groups and women's health advocates.

“Today’s proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans," said the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has filed several lawsuits challenging the mandate.

Supporters of the contraception mandate didn't feel that they had given up significant ground.

“This policy delivers on the promise of women having access to birth control without copays no matter where they work,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Of course, we are reviewing the technical aspects of this proposal, but the principle is clear and consistent. This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has strongly opposed the contraception mandate in the past, was noncommittal about the minor revisions. The group said only that it will review the regulations.

The policy will require most employers to cover contraception in their workers' healthcare plans without charging a copay or deductible. The new regulations simplify the exception for churches and other houses of worship, a step HHS said was designed to ensure that churches don't lose their exemption because of social programs that serve people of multiple faiths.

Religiously affiliated insurers, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, would still be exempt from paying for the coverage directly, but their employees would be able to access contraception without any cost-sharing through their insurance company.

What HHS changed on Friday was the structure of that partial exemption. Previously, religiously affiliated employers protested that because their insurance companies were providing the coverage, they were still effectively paying for it.

HHS said Friday that insurance companies will now get a rebate from the federal government to offset the cost of providing coverage and that religiously affiliated employers won't have to lift a finger to make the coverage available or notify employees that it exists.

Insurers will get a break from the fees they pay to participate in a federally run insurance exchange to offset the cost of providing contraception coverage.

— Published at 12:35 p.m. and last updated at 1:37 p.m.