SHAFAQNA – The Obama administration is set to outline a new compromise Friday designed to shield religious business owners and Christian universities and charities from the health law’s contraception-coverage requirements while maintaining the coverage for women, according to people familiar with the new rules.
The new rules, expected later in the day, will lay out a multistep process in which employers that are morally opposed to including birth control in workers’ insurance would state their objections in writing, and the federal government would take over responsibility for the coverage from there.
The move is aimed at resolving three years of tension between churches and the White House, which have included numerous legal challenges. It comes in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in late June that the administration couldn’t impose the requirements on the owners of for-profit companies such as arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby, who had argued that as evangelical Christians they objected to covering the so-called morning-after pill and certain intrauterine devices because they consider them tantamount to abortion.
Under the rules, to be announced by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, institutions would have to tell the federal government which company administers their health-insurance plan, and the government would then contact that administrator to ask it to arrange contraception coverage for the institution’s employees. The administrator would likely turn to a traditional insurance company to fund the benefits, and the insurance company would later be reimbursed by the federal government.
Federal officials have said they want to shield institutions with religious objections to covering some or all of the birth-control methods included in the Affordable Care Act by arranging or funding ways for employees to receive the benefits in other ways. The system would be immediately available for religiously affiliated nonprofits that want to use it, and it would also be soon thereafter offered to the owners of for-profit companies affected by the court’s decision. The administration is still working out exactly which for-profit companies are “closely-held,” the definition used by the Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court found the government hadn’t done enough to take into account the rights of owners of closely-held businesses under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires federal officials to accommodate such beliefs unless they have no other way of carrying out a particular policy.
Days after that decision, a majority of the court’s justices also indicated that a previous compromise offered by the administration specifically for religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations also might not withstand dozens of separate lawsuits brought by high-profile plaintiffs, such as the University of Notre Dame.
It wasn’t yet clear how many employers would want to use the revised system or how many workers would be affected.
Catholic leaders concerned about the impact on church-linked colleges, social-services organizations and hospitals have been fighting the birth-control coverage requirements since August 2011, when the administration first announced that contraception would be one of the preventive services that the law requires insurance plans to cover without a copayment.
In February 2012, amid a growing furor fueled in part by Republican presidential candidates, President Barack Obama said his administration would find an alternative method of getting birth-control coverage for the employees of such organizations. But all the forms of the alternatives that have been proposed to date have been considered inadequate by Catholic bishops, as well as some other Christian groups. Those alternatives were similar but not identical to the system outlined on Friday.
The bishops and the broader coalition of groups have been campaigning to be exempt from the requirement entirely, as houses of worship already are. They will now face a thorny debate over whether to accept the latest proposal.
Catholic ethicists have said previously that their main objections are to employees getting birth-control coverage that is linked in any way to the insurance plans funded by Catholic institutions and to requirements that institutions authorize any other means of those employees accessing contraception, because both actions make them complicit in something they consider to be evil.
As a result, they will have to weigh whether the new refinement soothes their concerns. At the same time, the administration’s latest proposal appears to follow closely the action ordered by the Supreme Court when it granted the early July injunction temporarily shielding Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois, from the requirement.
The requirement remains politically controversial. Republican critics of the health law seized on the court’s decision this summer as a rebuke of the Democrat-passed legislation and as a sign that Democrats, including President Barack Obama, didn’t adequately respect many Americans’ religious beliefs.
But during the 2012 election, Democrats also seized on Republican opposition to the contraception requirements as part of a “war on women” campaign message, which some have credited with helping the president retain the White House and Democrats retain control of Senate.
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