Despite a furious lobbying effort by the Catholic Church, the Obama administration today said it won't weaken new rules that will require most health insurance plans to offer women prescription contraceptives at no additional out-of-pocket cost.
The final version of the rules will give religious-based hospitals, universities, charities, and other organizations whose primary purpose is not religious, an additional year to come into compliance with the contraceptive requirement. Churches are exempt.
But even a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office last November between President Obama and the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops failed to change the administration's position to allow a broader exemption.
"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. "I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
That is not, however, how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sees it. "To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable," said the group's president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, in a statement. "It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom."
And the additional year? "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences," Dolan said.
But while the bishops — and many of the Republican presidential candidates — have accused the Obama administation of waging a war on religion, women's groups are hailing the decision.
"This is a health care issue," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood. "It was based on what's good for women's health."
Richards also pointed out that, despite the bishops' claims, many religious organizations currently offer birth control as a covered health benefit. "It hasn't been an issue before," she said.
The decision has broad ramifications. "Virtually all women from all religious backgrounds use contraception at some point in their lives to protect their health and plan their families and their lives," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington. "With today's action, the administration refused to give religious employers the right to discriminate."
But while the rules are now final, the bishops say the fight is not over. They are vowing to fight, in court if necessary, to have the administration's decision overturned.
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The Obama administration announced today that it would not weaken new rules that require insurers to offer women contraceptives at no additional cost. That's despite a furious lobbying effort by the Catholic Church. As NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the decision has won praise from women's health groups, but it opens the administration to charges that it's hostile to religious freedom.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: The decision to require nearly all health insurance plans to cover prescription birth control without requiring women to pay a deductible or co-payment actually came last August. Here's how Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius put it at the time.
SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Since birth control is the most common drug prescribed to women ages 18 to 44, insurance plans should cover it. Not doing it would be like not covering flu shots.
ROVNER: The administration exempted churches from the contraceptive coverage requirement, but not religious-based hospitals, universities, charities and other organizations whose primary purpose is not religious. That launched a furious backlash, primarily from the Catholic Church, which claimed its members would be forced to choose between offering contraceptives which violate its teachings, or not offering its workers health insurance at all. Last November, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, took his complaints directly to the Oval Office. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the spokeswoman for the bishops, confirmed reports that the talks seem to go well from their point of view.
SISTER MARY ANN WALSH: I think that the president has said he wouldn't do anything to hinder the church's ministry.
ROVNER: Which is why, says Walsh, Dolan was not pleased when the president called him personally this morning to inform him of the decision not to substantially alter the requirements.
WALSH: It's an unconscionable decision, really. It's unconscionable to force citizens to buy contraceptives against their will. This is an assault on religious freedom.
ROVNER: Of course no individual will be required to purchase contraceptives. She's talking about the employers who will have to offer them as part of insurance coverage. The final version of the rules, announced today, does give religious universities, hospitals and the like an additional year - until August of 2013 - to come into compliance with the contraceptive coverage rule. But it does not provide them an exemption, which the bishops find unacceptable.
WALSH: A year to decide how to violate your conscience?
ROVNER: That's no solution, she says. But while the bishops - and many of the Republican presidential candidates - have accused the Obama administration of waging a war on religion. Women's groups are hailing the decision.
CECILE RICHARDS: This is a health care issue that's based on what's good for women's health.
ROVNER: Cecile Richards is president of Planned Parenthood. And Richards says it's not just about health, but also economics.
RICHARDS: A lot of women are still paying, even with insurance, are paying $50 a month for birth control. And at a time where women, families are struggling, this is an enormous advance.
ROVNER: Richards also points out that despite the bishops' claims, many Catholic institutions already offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health insurance package.
RICHARDS: It's the most common medicine women use, and this will mean that women, regardless of their - you know, where they work, what their religion is, will have access, equal access, to birth control coverage. And that's really what this is about.
ROVNER: But while the rules are now final, the bishops say the fight is not over. They are vowing to have them overturned, in court if necessary. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.