By Elise Viebeck - 06/28/13 04:15 PM EDT
The Obama administration announced final rules Friday on ObamaCare's birth-control coverage mandate.
The final rules do not substantively alter the controversial mandate, which requires most employers to cover a range of birth-control methods in their health plans without charging a co-pay or a deductible.
The policy sparked more than 60 lawsuits and pitted federal officials against religious groups opposed to covering contraception.
In a similar way, under the final rules, self-insured religious groups will notify their plan administrators about their objection to covering birth control, and the administrator will notify policyholders about their separate eligibility for birth-control services.
Insurance companies enlisted to provide contraception under these accommodations will receive a rebate from the federal government to offset the cost.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius praised the final rules as a compromise between religious groups and women whom she said deserve free access to birth control.
Friday's move by regulators closes one chapter of the saga surrounding the mandate.
Announced at the beginning of last year, the original policy would have required most employers, including religiously affiliated organizations, to cover the full range of birth-control methods approved by the Food and Drug (FDA) Administration in their employee health plans.
This caused an uproar among Catholics and others who are morally opposed to birth control and sterilization. These critics cast the administration's proposed rule as an affront to religious freedom, an argument taken up by Republicans in Congress.
The White House eventually softened its mandate by creating an arrangement under which the employees of religiously affiliated institutions will obtain contraceptive coverage automatically through their insurance companies.
This accommodation would apply to workers in Catholic hospitals and universities, for example, and does not require the religious employer to pay for or facilitate the coverage. Churches and houses of worship are exempt from the mandate altogether.
Federal officials previewed a similar version of the final rule in February, but the battle lines with religious groups remained in place.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a leading and powerful critic of the mandate, remained in opposition, charging that the accommodation requires Catholic hospitals and universities to provide "illicit" birth-control coverage.
Along with other opponents of the mandate, the bishops had asked the administration to exempt any employer whose personal religious feelings conflict with covering birth control for workers.
The White House refused, arguing that a woman's access to free birth control should not be curtailed because of her employer's beliefs.
Opponents of the mandate repeated their concerns on Friday, and predicted that new plaintiffs would file suit against the administration in the next week.
"We're where we've been all along," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
"[Religious groups] are being asked to be the gatekeepers to these services. That's the fundamental problem."
Updated at 2:30 p.m.