WASHINGTON — Religious colleges and other religious nonprofits will get more time to comply with new rules requiring insurance plans to cover contraception, and organizations that disagree with birth control on moral grounds won’t have to pay for or promote access to employees’ or students’ birth control coverage, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday.
But employees and students at religious colleges will still be able to get birth control fully covered by insurance with no co-pay, because insurance companies or third-party insurance administrators will be required to offer and pay for that coverage separately.
When it issued a final rule Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services put out its last word — at least for now — on a controversy that has pitted some religious colleges, as well as Roman Catholic bishops, against the Obama administration’s health-care overhaul. The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, requires all insurance to cover preventive services — which, for women, includes all forms of birth control, including the morning-after pill — with only a narrow exemption for houses of worship, not religiously oriented nonprofits.
Colleges will now have until Jan. 1, 2014, to comply with the rule. (Originally, they were expected to be in compliance by August.) All other employers have been required to offer insurance that covers birth control with no co-pays or cost-sharing since 2012.
Several attempts at compromise have pushed back the compliance date. The Obama administration received 400,000 comments, and dozens of nonprofit and for-profit business have sued over the requirement, saying they are morally opposed to providing access to birth control — whether because they are Catholic and opposed to all forms of contraception, or because they believe the morning-after pill to be tantamount to abortion.
But many universities, including some Catholic colleges, already comply with similar rules from state-based health plans. A handful, though, have taken more drastic steps to oppose the administration’s plan, including suing the Department of Health and Human Services or threatening to cancel student health coverage altogether.
Reactions were muted when the administration issued its final rule Friday, with religious college groups that have objected to the regulations saying they were still reviewing it. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents several groups that have sued over the rule, including Ave Maria College and the Catholic University of America, said the compromise makes no difference because employers should not have to offer insurance with access to contraception if they disagree with it on moral grounds, even if the employers aren’t required to pay for it or promote access.
"We are encouraged by the administration's apparent recognition of the challenges that many Catholic organizations will face in bringing their insurance policies into compliance," said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, in a statement Saturday. "During the coming days, ACCU will give significant time and attention to analyzing the lengthy and complex ruling, and determine the extent to which the ruling genuinely respects the religious liberty of Catholic colleges and universities and other religiously affiliated entities."
The Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities declined to comment.
The last word, though, is likely to be the courts’. Many religious colleges’ suits have not fared well in court: more than half of those filed have been dismissed, mostly along procedural grounds. But several lawsuits, including those from Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College, were held in abeyance because the administration had not issued final regulations. The issuance of the final rule means those suits can proceed.
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