Under increasing pressure, the White House has offered what it's calling an "accommodation" to religious groups on a requirement to cover birth control free of charge.
Even some Democrats, who generally support the policy of requiring most employers to offer no-cost contraception, were unhappy with the rule's reach.
But the change unveiled by the White House isn't expected to completely quell the uproar raised by Catholics and others who say the policy violates their freedom of religion.
The change would allow employers that have religious objections to offering contraception as part of their health plans to turn the responsibility over to insurance companies instead.
As a result, "nurses, teachers, janitors and others" who work for religious-based hospitals, universities and social service agencies "will still have access" to contraception without having to pay a copay or deductible, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call Friday morning.
But at the same time, he said, "religious liberty will be fully protected."
Women's groups were cautiously pleased with the change.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. "However, we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care."
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, which oversees more than 600 Catholic hospitals, praised the change in a statement.
"We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished," she said. "The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance."
Before the change, the Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center told NPR there was no reason for Catholic bishops to settle on the issue, because they've been winning the public relations battle. "They're getting support from progressive Catholics and conservative Catholics," Reese says, "so the bishops are on a roll."
The White House just released a summary of what's in the works. Here's the statement in its entirety.
FACT SHEET: Women's Preventive Services and Religious Institutions
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans will cover women's preventive services, including contraception, without charging a co-pay or deductible beginning in August, 2012. This new law will save money for millions of Americans and ensure Americans nationwide get the high-quality care they need to stay healthy.
Today, President Obama will announce that his Administration will implement a policy that accommodates religious liberty while protecting the health of women. Today, nearly 99 percent of all women have used contraception at some point in their lives, but more than half of all women between the ages of 18-34 struggle to afford it.
Under the new policy to be announced today, women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where she works. The policy also ensures that if a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge.
The new policy ensures women can get contraception without paying a co-pay and addresses important concerns raised by religious groups by ensuring that objecting religious employers will not have to provide contraceptive coverage or refer women to organizations that provide contraception. Background on this policy is included below:
- Section 2713 of the Affordable Care Act, the Administration adopted new guidelines that will require most private health plans to cover preventive services for women without charging a co-pay starting on August 1, 2012. These preventive services include well women visits, domestic violence screening, and contraception, and all were recommended to the Secretary of Health and Human Services by the independent Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science.
Today, the Obama Administration will publish final rules in the Federal Register that:
- Exempts churches, other houses of worship, and similar organizations from covering contraception on the basis of their religious objections.
- Establishes a one year transition period for religious organizations while this policy is being implemented.
The President will also announce that his Administration will propose and finalize a new regulation during this transition year to address the religious objections of the non-exempted religious organizations. The new regulation will require insurance companies to cover contraception if the non-exempted religious organization chooses not to. Under the policy:
- Religious organizations will not have to provide contraceptive coverage or refer their employees to organizations that provide contraception.
- Religious organizations will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception.
- Contraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers' insurance companies directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception.
- Insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.
Covering contraception saves money for insurance companies by keeping women healthy and preventing spending on other health services. For example, there was no increase in premiums when contraception was added to the Federal Employees Health Benefit System and required of non-religious employers in Hawaii. One study found that covering contraception lowered premiums by 10 percent or more.