Administration moves toward new rule on contraceptives

Birth control. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)
Birth control. (Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times) MCT

The Obama administration on Friday moved to enact new rules that help ensure contraception coverage for employees of certain companies that have religious objections to birth control.

The new rule would seek to isolate the employers from the coverage they found morally objectionable. They’d be able to notify the government of their objections, which in turn would notify the insurance companies and order them to provide the coverage at no cost.

Without the change, the religious-minded employers have to contact the insurance companies directly.

It was unclear if the new approach would avert legal challenges.

“Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to providing women with access to coverage for contraception, while respecting religious considerations raised by non-profit organizations and closely held for-profit companies,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in a statement.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, supported the HHS moves.

“At this time when opponents of women’s health are taking extreme steps to deny women coverage for birth control, we applaud the Obama administration for taking steps to protect this essential coverage,” Ness said.

But Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion public interest law firm, criticized the HHS moves as a violation of the “conscience rights of Americans.”

The Obama administration wants Congress to enact legislation ensuring birth control coverage for women affected by the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, said Eric Schultz, White House deputy press secretary.

“We believe that Congress can and should act to ensure that any women affected by recent Supreme Court actions get the same overage, options that everyone else is offered,” he said. “Legislative action is the quickest and best way to ensure that women get access to the services they need, and we call on Congress to act quickly.”

The Affordable Care Act requires job-based health insurance to provide women with free coverage for all FDA-approved contraceptive services prescribed by a health professional.

Certain non-profit religious employers that object to birth control on religious grounds don’t have to provide that coverage, however, under a special government accommodation. In these instances, the federal government steps in to provide coverage for employees.

Other employers eligible for the coverage waiver include those organized and operating as non-profits and those that define themselves as religious organizations and self-certify that they meet the necessary criteria for that designation.

Under the new interim rule, these organizations can notify HHS in writing of their objection to contraceptive coverage. HHS and the Department of Labor will then inform insurers that enrollees in these plans can receive separate contraceptive coverage from the federal government through third-party providers.

The move comes in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 5-4 decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which maintained that certain businesses can reject on religious grounds the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to provide employees with birth control coverage.

The high court’s decision in June concluded that closely held corporations may claim religious rights similar to those enjoyed by individuals. Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts retailer, maintained that the birth control coverage mandate violated its rights of religious freedom under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In addition, HHS also issued a proposed rule on Friday seeking comment on how to allow closely held for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby to seek similar waivers of the birth control coverage mandate. Closely held companies typically are family owned or have a small number of investors.