and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
WASHINGTON: The Obama administration issued its final compromise Friday for religiously affiliated charities, hospitals and other nonprofits that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans.
The Health and Human Services Department said the final plan simplifies how insurers provide the coverage separately from faith-based groups and gives religious nonprofits more time to comply. However, the changes are unlikely to resolve objections from faith groups that the requirement violates their religious freedom.
More than 60 lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule. The cases are expected to reach the Supreme Court.
The birth-control rule was first introduced in February 2012, as part of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul, drawing praise from women’s groups and condemnation from religious leaders. The original plan exempted churches and other houses of worship, but required faith-affiliated charities, universities and other nonprofits to provide the coverage for their employees.
The regulation became an election-year issue as Roman Catholic bishops, evangelicals and some religious leaders who have generally been supportive of Obama’s policies lobbied fiercely for a broader exemption. The Obama administration offered a series of accommodations, leading to the final rules released Friday.
Under the compromise, administration officials said they simplified the definition of religious organizations that are fully exempt from the requirement. The change means a church that also ran a soup kitchen would not have to comply.
Other religious nonprofits must notify their insurance company that they object to birth control coverage. The insurer or administrator of the plan will then notify affected employees separately that coverage will be provided at no cost. The insurers would be reimbursed by a credit against fees owed the government.
Michael Hash, director of the health reform office of the Health and Human Services Department, said the final regulation spells out in more detail the buffer between religious charities and contraceptive coverage.
Faith-based groups were given another reprieve — until Jan. 1 — to comply.
“There’s a much brighter line here — a simpler line — and we think that responds to a good many of the comments that we got,” said Michael Hash, director of the Health and Human Services office of health reform. More than 400,000 comments were submitted over the last several months, the agency said.
Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group based in Washington, said she would prefer women hear directly about the coverage from their insurer, but her organization could accept the plan.
“It’s fair,” she said.