The Obama administration ordered employers Thursday to notify their workers if they plan to cut birth-control coverage from their health plans in the wake of the Supreme Court's "Hobby Lobby" decision.
Labor Department officials announced the policy just a day after Senate Republicans filibustered a bill that would have overturned the justices' ruling, which said closely held corporations can refuse to insure contraceptives they object to on moral grounds.
Congressional Democrats cheered the administration's move as an important step to give workers a chance to know what obstacles they may face in obtaining free contraception.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, introduced a bill to go even further and require for-profit companies to disclose their policies to job applicants, too.
"Workers should be informed if their employers are restricting the availability of coverage for contraception or any other health care service guaranteed under law," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
The Labor Department's move marked a quiet change in course for Democrats who are trying to use the court-mandated change to Obamacare to their political advantage.
"For plans that reduce or eliminate coverage of contraceptive services after having provided such coverage, expedited disclosure requirements for material reductions in covered services or benefits apply," the Labor Department said in its posting.
The contraception debate stems from an administrative rule that mandated for-profit companies to cover 20 forms of birth control as part of their company health plans. Dozens of employers objected on religious grounds, particularly to morning-after pills they equate with abortion, resulting in litigation.
Houses of worship are exempt from the mandate, and the administration extended a compromise to faith-based nonprofits that would allow them to waive responsibility for covering contraception. The accommodation has been rejected by some religious colleges and charities and is being contested in court.
Hobby Lobby's employee health coverage includes 16 of the 20 birth-control methods mandated under Obamacare, including both female and male condoms, along with birth-control pills, diaphragms and spermicides.
Republicans welcomed the Supreme Court's decision last month to let for-profit employers duck the contraception mandate tied to Obamacare, calling it a win for religious liberty.
But Democrats seized on the adverse ruling to raise campaign funds and whip up progressive fervor ahead of November's congressional elections. Their efforts seemed to stall Wednesday, when a Senate bill that would require corporations to cover contraception failed to get the 60 votes need to overcome a procedural hurdle.
Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, authored the bill to reverse the ruling and is using the issue in his race against his Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner. Mr. Gardner has said contraceptives should be offered without a prescription, and Senate Republicans have proposed a bill to study over-the-counter birth control.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said Thursday it strongly supports Obamacare's approach because it provides birth control without cost-sharing, while over-the-counter contraceptives may remain out of reach for many women.
"Cost is a major factor in a woman's consistent use of contraception," the group said, "and many women simply cannot afford the out of pocket costs of contraceptives without health insurance coverage."
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