The Obama administration announced a “common sense accommodation,” seeking to end a public dispute with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others over new requirements for contraceptive services in health insurance plans. Under revised guidelines offered on Feb. 10, a religious exemption from those new requirements will still apply to church entities such as parishes and dioceses. Nonprofit religious employers—universities, hospitals, social service providers—will no longer be required to offer contraception, pay for it through 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-business woman or a nurse or a janitor,” President Obama said, announcing the policy modification 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.”
But, the president said, his administration has been mindful of “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,” he said, “I cherish this right.”
Under the new plan, the president 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.”
The president personally briefed Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the bishops’ conference, on the policy change during a phone call on Feb. 10. The president acknowledged that this policy adjustment may still not satisfy all critics.
After first suggesting on the morning of Feb. 10 that the president’s “accommodation” represented a “first step in the right direction,” the U.S.C.C.B. after further study of the proposal quickly came to a different conclusion. Noting that the revision still retained the nationwide contraception mandate, described as “unsupported in the law” and “a grave moral concern,” a statement from the bishops said that “the only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for H.H.S. to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”
The bishops argued that the revised language still lacked protections for "key stakeholders,” which they now argue should include not just Catholic institutional employers but essentially any employer who finds the mandated coverage morally objectionable, including self-insured religious employers; religious and secular for-profit employers; secular nonprofit employers and religious insurers. The statement also seemed to reject the president’s position that religious employers would not be put in the position of financing contraception coverage. According to the statement: “In the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer’s plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer.”
The bishops pledged to “continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government.”
Senior administration officials say the additional contraception services are cost-neutral, so no additional premium is required to pay for them.
After announcing the policy revision, the White House quickly circulated a statement from Carol Keehan, S.C., the president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association, supporting the new position. “The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed,” said Sister Keehan. “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.”