The Obama administration issued final rules Friday for the birth control mandate under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, an area of the massive health overhaul that generated some of the greatest opposition.
The mandate — effective Aug. 1, 2012 — requires most employers to cover a range of birth-control methods in their health plans without charging a co-pay or a deductible.
Religious groups have strongly opposed the rule, and dozens of lawsuits against the federal government followed. Meanwhile, the administration — as well as women’s rights advocates — continued to praise the contraception mandate, saying it gives women control over their health care.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday the final rules “strike the appropriate balance” between respecting those religious considerations and increasing access to important preventive services for women.
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“The health care law guarantees millions of women access to recommended preventive services at no cost,” Sebelius said in a statement.
“Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work.”
The final rules finalize the proposed simpler definition of “religious employer” for purposes of the exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement in response to concerns raised by some religious organizations.
These employers, primarily churches, may exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans for their employees and their dependents.
Women at nonprofit, religious-based organizations — such as at certain hospitals and universities — will have the ability to receive contraception through separate health policies at no cost.
The approach taken in the final rules is similar but simpler than that taken in the proposed rules, and addresses many stakeholder concerns, HHS said.
Announced early last year, the original mandate required most employers, including religious-affiliated organizations, to cover a range of birth control methods.
That triggered a fast and intense pushback from Catholics and other religious groups that oppose birth control, and called the mandate an attack on their religious freedom.
In February, the administration proposed a work-around for religious nonprofits that object to providing health insurance that covers birth control, attempting to create a barrier between religious groups and contraception coverage, through insurers or a third party.
But groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continued to oppose the regulations.
Proponents of the mandate argue that the requirement is a “win” for women, and will help reduce unplanned pregancies and abortions.
“The magic combination of responsible public and private policies and responsible behavior on the part of men and women can make all the difference in helping reduce unplanned pregnancy and improving the education and employment prospects of women and their families,” Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said last year.
The Catholic Church has yet to respond to the final rules.