Friday, 10 February 2012 12:00

White House Alters Controversial Birth Control Rule

FRIDAY, Feb. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Facing a firestorm of criticism from Catholic leaders, the Obama administration on Friday said it will adjust its health care guideline mandating that religious employers provide women with access to birth control.

In a shift from the current policy, the White House is now saying that these employers will not have to extend free access to birth control, but that insurance companies will be made directly responsible for doing so.

Women who request birth control will still be able to get it free of co-pays or premiums, but universities, hospitals and other institutions with religious affiliations can refuse to cover it, leaving the woman's insurance company with the responsibility of coverage.

In a press briefing Friday morning, an unnamed senior administration official called the move "an accommodation" to religious groups objecting to the policy, which still allows women access to birth control.

"We still have the exemption for employees at churches," the official said. "But all women will have access to free preventive care, including contraception, no matter where they work. That's the core principle that's at stake here."

The change appears to be the Administration's attempt to satisfy both sides on the issue -- religious leaders who object to providing contraception to employees, and those who wish to see that all women retain free access to birth control.

During a lunchtime press briefing, President Barack Obama explained the new position further.

"No woman's health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes," CNN reported Obama as saying. But "the principle of religious liberty" is also at stake. "As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right."

"Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive service no matter where they work," Obama said, according to USA Today. "That core principle remains. But 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, without hassle."

The White House first found itself embroiled in a political fight with Catholic Church officials after a Jan. 20 announcement that all religious-affiliated employers, with the exception of churches and other houses of worship, would have to cover free birth control as part of routine preventive care for women. These institutions were given until August 2013 to comply with the rule.

The announcement last month quickly met with a heated response from Catholic leaders nationwide, and Republican leaders in Congress promised quick legislation in Congress to stop the move. The decision also became a flashpoint for the presidential election race, as Obama's opponents labeled him as attacking religion. On the other side, groups representing women and health advocates pressured Obama to stand firm.

Under the revised plan, religious employers need not offer contraception or refer women to places that might provide it. In these cases, however, the woman's insurance company must fill in the gap and cover contraception free of charge.

The rule is in keeping with the Obama administration's health care reform law, which requires most insurance plans to cover women's preventive health services with no co-pay, starting Aug. 1, 2012.

More information

For more on birth control, head to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.