WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced plans Friday that would let religious colleges and other faith-based employers avoid directly covering birth control in insurance policies they offer, and at least some religious groups are saying they will accept the compromise.
The change came after three weeks of furor over a final rule, issued in January by the Department of Health and Human Services, that requires that contraceptives be covered by all insurance plans for women without cost-sharing or copay. The rule provided a narrow exemption for churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship, but other religious employers -- including Roman Catholic and other Christian colleges -- were granted only a one-year extension to comply with the new rule.
Many experts on women's health argue that all women deserve access to birth control to promote their own health, and to allow them to plan to have children when they are ready to do so -- regardless of their employers' religious beliefs.
The rule provoked an uproar, and Republican presidential contenders seized on the issue on the campaign trail, accusing President Obama of trampling on religious freedom. Two colleges (one evangelical, one Catholic) sued the administration, arguing that the requirement to cover contraception interfered with their First Amendment rights.
Catholic colleges objected to any coverage for birth control, which is forbidden by the Catholic church. Some evangelical colleges, even those with no church stricture against birth control in general, said they could not cover the “morning after pill,” which can prevent pregnancy if taken after unprotected sex and which some consider tantamount to abortion. And some colleges worried about the message they would send to students if contraception was covered in student health plans the colleges offer, given that some Christian colleges have behavior codes forbidding premarital sex.
On Friday, the administration announced it will change the policy. Religious employers, including colleges, will no longer have to pay for or offer the contraceptive coverage themselves. Instead, insurers will be required to contact the women who work at such employers and offer coverage for birth control free of charge.
“Religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly,” Obama said in a statement announcing the change Friday afternoon.
The financial details of the plan aren’t entirely clear: while an administration official said offering free contraceptives saves insurance companies money in the long run, because covering a pregnancy, labor and delivery is far more expensive than birth control pills, the pills themselves -- as well as more expensive devices that are also covered, such as intrauterine devices or hormone-releasing implants -- are still not free. The cost will presumably be passed along in some other way, even if the colleges are not paying premiums specifically for birth control.
Still, while waiting for more details, associations of religious colleges said the president’s announcement was an important step forward.
“I think finding the acceptable balance between health coverage and religious freedom is heading in the right direction,” said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “I’m unclear if all of the key questions have been answered or resolved.”
Galligan-Stierle said he remained concerned about student health plans, as well as colleges that provide self-insured plans rather than purchasing premiums through an insurance company.
Some Catholic colleges, including DePaul and Georgetown Universities, offer plans to employees that include contraceptive coverage, according to an informal survey by Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publishing company. Galligan-Stierle said that colleges that already offer insured contraceptives are located in states that require birth control coverage and are doing so in some cases “against their better judgment.”
“They’ve done it because the state law has made it impossible for them to exist without it,” Galligan-Stierle said. “They’ve done it not because they freely jumped in, but because it was mandated that they had to.”
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities “acknowledges and appreciates the compromise,” the group said in a statement: “We commend the Obama Administration for its willingness to work with us on moving toward a solution, and we look forward to working out the details of these new regulations with the White House.”
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which represents many evangelical colleges that oppose abortion and require students to abstain from premarital sex, was more cautious in its reaction. Paul Corts, the organization’s president, said in a statement that he was encouraged that Obama mentioned support for religious liberty in his speech on Friday, but was withholding judgment until more details are released.
“We are anxious to get the details and will continue to work with the Administration to try to ensure that the religious liberty of our institutions is protected,” Corts said.
The rule takes effect for religious colleges on Aug. 1, 2013.