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Obama Shifts on Contraceptives

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The Obama administration today switched gears on the controversial rule that would have required religious institutions to provide coverage for birth control to employees, switching the onus to health insurers.

The new policy removes the role of religious institutions in providing coverage for birth control for female employees. Under the new proposal, the transaction would occur directly between women and insurers.

In the first response by an insurer to the change in policy, Aetna said that it would “certainly comply with the policy announced today.”

But, it said, “we need to study the mechanics of this unprecedented decision before we can understand how it will be implemented and how it will impact our customers.”

In his efforts to tamp down the controversy over the issue, President Obama said that, “The result will be that religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly.

“Let me repeat: These employers will not have to pay for, or provide, contraceptive services,” Obama said. “But women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they’ll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying the rent or buying groceries.”

Cynthia Pearson, co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices for the Health Care We Need, said that under the new policy, women who work for religiously-affiliated employers like Catholic hospitals can receive contraceptive coverage at no additional cost directly from their insurance companies, rather than from their employers.

Pearson interpreted the president’s decision as saying that despite “intense pressure from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, President Obama said that the White House would not back down from its guarantee that insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays.”

Pearson added, “Women asked the President to stand with us, and he did.”

She said the new policy “protects women’s access to critical preventive health services without adding new charges.”

Republicans in Congress as well as those running for president had also voiced intense opposition to the decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to mandate through a rule in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that religious institutions include contraception coverage in their healthcare packages for employees, although giving them a year’s delay to comply.

But that was not enough for congressional opponents.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is running for re-election, said “This is about religious freedom, and anything short of a full exemption is no compromise. …The backlash surrounding the White House’s decision to force religious institutions to act against their beliefs lays that fundamental fact that the President’s health law is unconstitutional to its very core.”

Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, added that, “this is a fig leaf and a disingenuous gimmick. The President needs to take off his green eye shade and read the First Amendment. This outrage is one more reason why the President’s healthcare law needs to be repealed.”

On the other side of the issue, Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, interpreted the president’s decision as “standing firm on women’s access to no-cost contraceptives no matter where they work.”

Rome added that, “After weeks of appalling and politically motivated attacks from Republicans, today’s decision by President Obama on the contraceptive rule is a major victory for women and families.

“The president guaranteed that women will still have access to no-cost birth control no matter where they work.”

Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, voiced deep concern about the proposal.

He said, “Health plans have long offered contraceptive coverage to employers as part of comprehensive, preventive benefits that aim to improve patient health and reduce health care cost growth.” But, he added, “We are concerned about the precedent this proposed rule would set. As we learn more about how this rule would be operationalized, we will provide comments through the regulatory process.”