Washington Post Article Sets Stage for Religious Fight and Health Care Rules

Obama administration gives groups more time to comply with birth control rule

By N.C. Aizenman, Friday, January 20, 11:51 AM

The Obama administration will allow religious organizations an additional year to comply with a new rule requiring employers that offer their workers health insurance to include coverage of birth control without out-of-pocket costs, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced Friday.

But the rule itself and the types of employers covered by it remain unchanged. This is likely to disappoint religious groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had lobbied vigorously for a permanent exemption for all employers that oppose birth control on religious grounds.

Women’s advocates and some Democratic lawmakers greeted the decision with relief, because they had feared the administration was planning to significantly broaden the categories of religious employers exempt from the requirement.

The rule, which was originally proposed by the administration last August and will take effect this Aug. 1, does exempt employers such as churches whose primary purpose is to inculcate religious beliefs and that mainly employ and serve individuals who share those beliefs. However, the bishops had argued that this definition was too narrow — excluding a wide swath of church-affiliated universities, hospitals and schools.

The one-year delay option announced Friday will not be available to religious institutions that already offer some degree of contraception coverage — including many Catholic universities and hospitals in states that have their own birth control requirements.

To qualify for the delay, an institution must certify to federal authorities that it is a nonprofit and that, for religious reasons, it does not presently offer contraception to its workers. The employer must also notify employees that contraceptive coverage is available through other sources such as community health centers, public clinics and hospitals, with support provided to low-income patients who might otherwise have difficulty paying for it.

Obama officials said the arrangement was intended to address complaints by religious groups that they would face logistical difficulties complying with the new rule within a matter of months.

“This proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” Sebelius said in a statement.

It is unclear how many women will be affected by the delay. National estimates of the number of workers employed by church-affiliated institutions are rough, ranging from 1 million to 2 million. It is also not known how many of these individuals and their dependents get health insurance through such employers, and if so, whether those plans already include birth control coverage.

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