New Plan Seeks to Ease Religious Colleges' Objections to Contraceptive Coverage

February 01, 2013

A proposed change in federal health-care rules would allow women working for religious organizations, including colleges affiliated with faith groups, to receive insurance coverage for contraceptives at no cost to the employer.

The new measure, which is not final, was announced on Friday by Department of Health and Human Services officials. The change is a response to objections from some religious organizations to a previous proposal that would have required such groups to help pay for birth control. Some colleges and other groups protested that plan, publicly and by filing lawsuits, saying that the Obama administration was forcing them to violate their religious beliefs that oppose the use of contraceptives.

The rule making is part of the process of carrying out the sweeping health-care overhaul that President Obama signed into law in 2010.

Under the new proposal, "group health plans of 'religious employers' would be exempted from having to provide contraceptive coverage, if they have religious objections to contraception," according a summary of the rule by the Health and Human Services Department.

Instead, the cost of contraceptives would be covered by a separate insurance policy at no cost to female employees or the religious organizations. Colleges that arrange for health insurance for their students could seek a similar arrangement, under the proposed rules.

"Today the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns," Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, said in a written statement. "We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers, and others to achieve these goals."

The cost of the coverage would be offset, the federal agency said, because there would be fewer childbirths that insurance companies would have to pay for.

In the case of self-insured organizations, a private insurer would provide the coverage, as arranged by a federal or state-run health exchange, the agency said.

The response from religious groups that opposed the original measure was not positive.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit group that is supporting the lawsuits of several colleges, issued a statement saying the new proposal "does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans."

Carl Zylstra, executive director of the Association of Reformed Colleges and Universities, said of the proposal that, "at first glance, it doesn't seem to help our members at all."

"The administration still seems stuck on limiting the definition of religious institutions to 'churches,'" Mr. Zylstra said in a written statement. But while member colleges of his group "are thoroughly and explicitly religious in their missions and culture, it is likely that none of them would qualify for the proposed exemptions since they are not run by churches and so do not fall under the IRS category cited in the rules."

At least half a dozen colleges have sued the administration over the contraceptive rules, and while some of those lawsuits have been dismissed, a number are still pending.