Obama Administration Outlines Options on Birth Control Coverage

The Obama administration signaled Friday
it’s willing to help insurance companies offset the cost of providing
free birth control to women working at church-affiliated institutions
like hospitals and colleges.

By finding a way to
make the middlemen whole, the administration may be able to extricate
itself from an unexpected political furor over birth control that has
mobilized partisans across the political spectrum a half-century after
the advent of the pill.

A 32-page regulatory
proposal unveiled Friday offered options for providing free birth
control to women whose employers object to contraception on religious
grounds. The government now classifies birth control as preventive care,
and President Barack Obama’s health care law requires health plans to
cover prevention at no cost to the consumer.

synagogues, mosques and other institutions whose primary purpose is to
propagate faith are exempt from the mandate. But when the administration
sought to impose the requirement on religious nonprofits serving the
public, it triggered a backlash. That forced President Barack Obama
himself to offer a compromise: insurers, not the religious employers
would bear the responsibility.

proposal lists options for carrying out the president’s compromise
without forcing insurers to bear the whole cost – or tempting them to
engineer backdoor maneuvers to recoup money from religious institutions
that object to birth control.

officials are seeking public comment for 90 days and will sift the
responses before making any final decision. Reflecting the sensitivity
of the issue, officials spoke only on condition of anonymity.

general principle is that we want to maintain the posture that a
religious organization that objects to paying for contraception, won’t,”
said an official who briefed reporters.

basic idea is to use the levers of government policy to reimburse the
insurance companies, for example, by providing them credits against fees
they would have to pay under another provision of the health care law.
Finding a balance will be tricky because of the complexity of the health
care law.

Women’s groups were generally
supportive of the administration’s latest move, although it seemed
unlikely to please religious conservatives. Catholic bishops have taken a
forceful stand opposing the birth control requirement as an affront to
religious freedom.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a
spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, questioned the
timing of the announcement, late Friday on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day
festivities. She said church leaders will begin studying the proposal
immediately, “but now is too soon to know what it actually says.”

officials say they don’t expect an endorsement from the bishops, but
they are hoping the accommodation will work for hospitals, colleges and
charitable organizations.

The head of the
Catholic Health Association, a trade group representing more than 600
hospitals around the country, also withheld judgment.

“We have to spend time reviewing it,” said Sister Carol Keehan.

group provided critical support for passage of Obama’s health care law
through Congress, publicly breaking with the bishops in a dispute over
the legislations restrictions on taxpayer funding for abortions.

The insurance industry also said it would need more time to study the proposals.

the administration released new rules for student health plans on
Friday. Generally, the requirements will lead to more robust coverage.
But because of a previously unforeseen gap in federal legislation, not
all student plans will have to upgrade. Plans sponsored by religious
colleges would be given more time to comply with the birth control
coverage provisions.

Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.