The Obama administration announced a “common sense accommodation,” seeking to end a public dispute with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over new requirements for contraception services in health care plans. Under revised guidelines offered today, a religious exemption from those new requirements for services will still apply to church entities such as parishes and dioceses, but non-profit religious employers, universities, hospitals, social service providers, will no longer be required to offer contraception, pay for it via insurance premiums or refer employees to contraception benefits outside their plans. A senior White House official said the administration believes the changes reflect "a health care policy that accommodates religious liberty while protecting women."

“Whether you’re a teacher, or a small businesswoman, or a nurse, or a janitor,” President Barack Obama said, announcing the policy reversal at the White House, “no woman’s health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes. Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health. Period.

“As we move to implement this rule, however, we’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here—and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.” The president said his staff had originally intended to resolve differences over the new policy over the coming year, but accelerated the decision-making after the issue had become a political football.

Under the new plan, he said, “If a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company -– not the hospital, not the charity -– will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles.”

President Obama personally called U.S.C.C.B. President N.Y. Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Rome to brief him on the White House decision. With this latest revision of H.H.S. guidelines, the Obama administration is trying to tamp down a controversy that was promising to cost them moderate and liberal Catholic votes in November, while still placating their Democratic base. Representatives from Planned Parenthood expressed satisfaction with the policy shift.

The president said it was personally important to him to find a resolution because “my first job in Chicago was working with Catholic parishes in poor neighborhoods…. And I saw that local churches often did more good for a community than a government program ever could, so I know how important the work that faith-based organizations do and how much impact they can have in their communities.”

"In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women's health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work," Planned Parenthood's Richards said.

"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Richards added.

Senior White House officials said insurance providers will in the future directly reach out to employees of Catholic and other faith-based not-for-profits organizations which object on religious grounds to contraception. Insurers will provide contraceptive services free of charge to employees which request it. The White House argues that contraception services are cost-neutral, in fact save insurers money, so no additional premium is required to pay for them. That aspect of the plan may still raise eyebrows at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops worried over comingling of funding. But a source at the U.S.C.C.B., worried that “there could be some [bishops] who still want to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory,” said, “They’ve framed this as a fight over religious liberty; they can’t pivot over to contraception.”

“Let’s not do that,” he said, calling the weeks of sometimes acrimonious public dispute over H.H.S. guidelines a “painful but important” discussion about religion and society. “This is a significant moment in the life of the nation, that we have had this discussion and raised public consciousness about the role of religion in society.”

The White House quickly circulated a news release from Sister Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, supporting the new position, which also drew support from Planned Parenthood officials. “The Catholic Health Association is very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions,” said Sister Keehan. “The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed. We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished. The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance. This difference has at times been uncomfortable but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy.”

The new exemption language was praised by John Gehring, the Catholic outreach coordinator for Faith in Public Life. "This decision," Gehring said, "shows the White House respects the Catholic community and concerns of diverse religious leaders. It's clear that the president worked very hard to protect both religious liberty and women's health. Those two values should not be in conflict. Republicans leaders and others who have unfairly bashed this administration for being hostile to religion should stop perpetuating that absurd narrative."

The president acknowledged that this policy adjustment may still not satisfy all critics of the H.H.S. guidelines. In fact Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski quickly denounced the proposed compromise as "too little, too late."

The president said, “We live in a pluralistic society where we're not going to agree on every single issue, or share every belief. That doesn’t mean that we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness for all Americans. We are unique among nations for having been founded upon both these principles, and our obligation as citizens is to carry them forward. I have complete faith that we can do that.”

Comments

Craig McKee | 2/11/2012 - 1:31am
ATTENTION WOMEN OF AMERICA!
All of us GUYS in politics and religion just got together and we have decided that:
''Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health. Period.''
ed gleason | 2/10/2012 - 4:56pm
@dave P..."the bishops were going to promote a conscience clause for Catholic businesses to avoids this mandate' see it's all business now. One USCCB lawyer is talking about a Catholic Taco Bell. you know.. one of those with no health benefits.

Moving the goal posts is one thing but the bishops putting them out of the stadium and behind a bill board is even more fun.. These ideologues have no shame..
Michael Barberi | 2/10/2012 - 3:42pm
Anyone familiar with the insurance industy knows that this tactic is absurd.

Most large employers self-fund their group health insurance plans. This means employers pay for their claims plus the insurance company's retention or administrative expense. If insurance companies are mandated to provide contraceptive coverage free of charge to employees of Catholic Institutions, they will pass on the cost to those employers.

To argue that contraceptive coverage is cost-neutral because the cost will be offset by less pregancies, abortions and medical care is true, but this is not how group insurance works. Many covered services reduce healthcare cost but are not offered free of charge. Why single out contraceptive services. The cost of many prescription drugs are offset by lower healthcare cost. You don't see insurance companies offering free drugs benefits. 

If Catholic Institutions are offer contraceptive coverage for free because such coverage is so-called "cost-neutral", large employers will DEMAND the same.

It will be interesting to see how such a "compromise" will work.
David Pasinski | 2/10/2012 - 2:51pm
Obama's statement hits some of the right notes, but this only postpones a confrontation or at least clarification that this may have been the opportunity to made some progress in - what is religion in this kind of society and how do institutions with "religious roots" or mission realte to this and religious liberty. Already it was eported that thebishops were going to promote a conscience clause for Catholic businesses to avoids this mandate.  If that is so, this is far from over.
C Walter Mattingly | 2/11/2012 - 4:06pm
I had not thought President Obama, the pragmatic opportunist, quite slick at handling public relations, could make an error that would match the Republicans obtuse and tone-deaf opposition to the payroll tax cut that ended the year, yet perhaps the president became overconfident and overreached, hamhandedly attempting to replace the wall of separation of church and state with this attempt to wall off the church from the life of the state, another step in minimizing the influence and rights of individuals and civic and religious organizations while maximizing that of an all-powerful government of bureaucrats. 

Like the foolish republican initiative before him, the Obama administration caved. The quote from  John Gehring, "This decision...shows the respect the Obama administration has for the Catholic community,,,.that the president worked very hard to protect...religious liberty....Republican leaders and others who have unfairly bashed this administration for being hostile to religion should stop perpetuating that absurd narrative" is such a flimsy fig leaf that it won't even stay put for the first morning breeze. The statement is also misleading: it was not Republicans who forced the president to cave, it was liberal and centrist democrats who supported him almost slavishly who came down on this outrage forcefully and with great effect.

In that regard I would personally like to express gratitude for staunch liberal Catholic supporters of the president such as Mark Shields, E.J. Dionne, and yes, even John Kerry, for having the integrity to affirm religious values and the Constitution in American life. Had it only been the republicans, as Mr Gehring hints, we could never have forced the president to rescind what Mr Shields referred to as an outrage. 

All in all, yet another reminder to watch what this president does, not what he says.
Anonymous | 2/10/2012 - 4:46pm
I posted a link. Now links are subversive and worth of deletion?  Give me a break. You all are nuts.