Under mounting pressure, the Obama administration today proposed an “accommodation” to a mandate that religious groups cover birth control free-of-charge.
President Obama made the announcement this afternoon in the White House Press room.
The new plan allows employers with religious objections to offering contraceptive coverage to turn the responsibility over to their health insurance company. Those insurers will be able to offer contraceptive coverage directly to employees without co-pays or other charges.
The original mandate issued last month drew sharp criticism from many Catholics, conservatives and even some Democrats, who argued that it was a violation of religious freedom. Churches, mosques and synagogues were exempt — but other religious institutions that serve and employ people of other faiths were not eligible for exemption.
The new rule grew out of a report by the Institute of Medicine last year that recommended an expansion of birth control services to women as part of the health reform law. The Department of Health and Human Services issued a ruling that contraception should be provided free-of-charge as an “essential health benefit” in their insurance coverage.
The initial reaction to today’s changes seemed to satisfy some key players on both sides on the debate.
Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, which represents Catholic hospitals, said they are “pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions.”
Keehan was a vocal critic of the Jan. 20 mandate.
Louise Melling, ACLU deputy legal director for the ACLU, also backed the decision, saying the group’s main concern was that women had access to contraceptive coverage — and that the president’s announcement today ensured religious institutions have the ability to opt out and still let women retain coverage.
Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Womens Law Center in Washington, said her organization is “very hopeful that this goal will be met without burdensome obstacles for women, no matter where they work.” She added that they will “closely monitor the implementation of this new rule” to make sure that all women have access to contraception coverage.
Watch PBS NewsHour tonight for more on the changes, including an interview with Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. You can watch live online from 6 to 7 p.m. ET here.