The Obama administration dug in its heels Friday by refusing to relax its approach toward religious nonprofits and corporations that object to the contraception insurance mandate in the new federal health care law.
Sticking to an "accommodation" it proposed months ago, the Department of Health and Human Services will allow faith-based hospital and universities to insure contraceptives through special third-party policies, without having to manage or pay for the services. Churches and other actual houses of worship that object will still be exempt from the requirement in the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
"The final rules are very similar to the proposals we laid out several months ago to ensure that women have free contraceptive coverage, while nonprofit religious organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage do not have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for such coverage," said Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, a deputy director at HHS, told reporters on a conference call.
The final decision is unlikely to satisfy America's bishops and other religious leaders who flatly rejected the accommodation when it was published in February.
The administration proposal also fails to exempt for-profit companies, dozens of which have filed lawsuits over the mandate on religious or moral grounds. Many analysts think the issue is headed for the Supreme Court, because federal appellate courts have handed down divergent rulings on the question.
The Obama administration cited the prevalent use and health benefits of using contraceptives when it included the birth control coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that he appreciates the five-month delay in implementing the mandate, but that it would take some time for the bishops to review the 110-page rule.
But the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank in Washington, quickly said the decision "shows the administration is tone-deaf to religious freedom."
Others praised the administration's decision, arguing employers shouldn't be able to push their views onto their employees.
"With this rule, the administration continues to stand by women and our families and refuses to let employers use religion to discriminate," said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
HHS officials said they received more than 400,000 comments on their proposed rule to satisfy nonprofits that object to the mandate.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers who decry all things "Obamacare" have gone to bat for objecting employers and filed legislation that would allow employers to opt out of the mandate if it violates their conscience.
On Friday, authors of the House bill applauded the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals' recent decision to reverse a lower court's ruling and grant Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based crafts store, a preliminary injunction against the mandate.
The company will not have to pay fines for not meeting the mandate as its legal challenge proceeds, the appeals court ruled.
HHS officials declined to comment on the litigation during their conference call.
Challengers to the mandate particularly object to contraceptives taken after sex, such as Plan B or Ella, which they equate with abortion.
Among religious nonprofits that self-certify as objectors to the mandate, insurance issuers or third-party administrators will cover employees' contraceptives through policies that are divorced from their regular health plans.
Officials said insurers should be made whole by the financial savings that result from thwarting unwanted pregnancies, and through a reduction in the fee that the insurer would normally pay to participate in the law's state-based health insurance exchanges.
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