- The Washington Times - Monday, April 8, 2013

President Obama’s top health official said Monday the administration will finalize its new rules granting free birth control, saying the controversial policy will go into effect in August.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ comments came the same day that the public comment period for the contraception mandate ended, and even as a bevy of nonprofit groups and companies are fighting in court to overturn it.

“As of Aug. 1, 2013, every employee who doesn’t work directly for a church or a diocese will be included in the benefit package,” Mrs. Sebelius said at a forum moderated by Reuters that was held at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The contraception policy, which the administration issued as part of the new health care law, requires employers to provide health insurance that covers birth control, such as oral contraceptives and sterilization, without charging a copay.

Churches, temples and mosques were not affected, but religiously affiliated nonprofits such as Catholic schools and hospitals were required to comply.

After a backlash, the administration offered an accommodation in February to employers who object. Under that policy, religious-affiliated organizations who object to contraceptive care could provide contraception through insurers and third-party administrators, without having to pay for the drugs or manage the coverage.

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Ms. Sebelius called that sufficient deference to religious liberty and a necessary public-health measure, but it has done little to quell complaints.

“The proposed ‘accommodation’ does nothing to assuage the consciences of people of faith who object to the government deciding who is religious enough to be granted an exemption to this violation of religious freedom,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for the Catholic Association, said Monday. “The current proposal still leaves these employers with an impossible choice: follow the law or follow their conscience and be subject to draconian fines.”

HHS hasn’t posted any of the public comments submitted on the rule on its website, but the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group said Monday the proposal has been the subject of more than 147,000 comments, or more input “than any other regulatory proposal on any subject government-wide.”

On Monday morning, the National Women’s Law Center and Planned Parenthood Federation of America said they had increased that number significantly by submitting nearly 350,000 comments from a coalition that supports the mandate.

The agency said it will review the comments before it issues a final rule, but Mrs. Sebelius’ remarks Monday signal which direction the agency is headed.

“We think [the proposal] upholds the religious beliefs of some, but does not impose religious views on an employee who may or may not share those religious beliefs,” she said. “Having said that, we’re being sued.”

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Dozens of nonprofits and more than 20 corporations have sought relief in federal court from the contraception mandate within the Affordable Care Act. They’ve obtained mixed results at the appellate level, a scenario that leads many to believe the issue will land before the Supreme Court.

On Monday, Archbishop William E. Lori, of Baltimore, cheered those who are challenging the mandate, saying they were taking a “courageous” stand.

“Their actions have been a source of encouragement,” he said, “particularly because of their high rate of success in obtaining early injunctions to block the mandate.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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