The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is promising a legal challenge to federal rules the Obama administration reaffirmed Friday requiring health insurers to provide women with a range of preventive health services, including birth control, without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or deductible.
The Department of Health and Human Services made no changes to a rule released in August that exempted some religious organizations, like those that employ or serve people who follow its religion, from the requirement. But religious organizations that do not meet those qualifications would be required to provide contraceptive coverage to employees. While churches are exempt, for example, religious universities and hospitals are not.
The rule goes into effect Aug. 1. Religious institutions that aren’t exempt get an additional year, until August 1, 2013, to comply with the regulation.
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she believed Friday’s announcement “strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”
Abortion rights opponents had challenged the rule, which is part of the health law, arguing that contraception violates the religious beliefs of some Americans, and that some forms of emergency contraception, including Plan B, are akin to early abortion. Religious groups also wanted a broader exemption. Friday’s announcement didn’t make them any happier.
“There really is no change,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the bishops. “What has been announced is that they are going to delay an enforcement. It’s as if they said ‘We’ll give you a year to figure out how to violate your conscience.’” The bishops’ group “will fight this edict; they have no choice but to fight this edict,” she said.
Other Catholic organizations were also upset. The Catholic Health Association called Friday’s announcement “a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection,” Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.
But abortion right proponents, who feared the Obama administration might back down from the original rule, were pleased.
Planned Parenthood praised the ruling, saying that it is “grounded in sound medical science and health policy and protects access to affordable birth control for millions of women, including women who are employed by a religiously affiliated hospital, university, or other religiously affiliated organization that serves the broader public.”
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the decision means that “millions will get access to contraception—and they will not have to ask their bosses for permission.”
HHS officials said Friday that the agency had received approximately 200,000 comments on the regulation, which covers all Food and Drug Administration approved forms of birth control. While emergency contraception is covered, abortion is not, they said.
Friday’s announcement will no doubt give Democrats and Republicans alike new ammunition in their ongoing debate over the sweeping health law that has been under attack ever since President Barack Obama signed it nearly two years ago.
Proponents of the law hailed the announcement as additional proof that it is expanding coverage for all Americans. Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., said the decision “marks a tremendous victory for women’s health and equality, and will ensure that women have access to affordable contraceptive coverage.”
Conservatives who oppose the health law point to the ruling as another example of the administration overstepping the rights of individuals and institutions. “This ruling forces religious organizations to violate the fundamental tenets of their faith, or stop offering health insurance coverage to their employees,” said Chris Jacobs, health policy analyst for the Republican Policy Committee.