HHS Mandate Revised for Religious Institutions
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 03:02
The White House has changed provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that would have required religious organizations to pay for contraception Jan. 31.
The proposed rules would allow women free access to contraceptives while accommodating the needs of non-profit religious organizations that object to birth control, including universities. Instead of requiring religious institutions to pay for contraception in their health insurance, the new regulation permits females to enroll in a separate no-cost coverage plan for birth control.
Religious organizations can notify their insurers, who will in turn let enrollees know that they are covered under a different individual health insurance policy for contraception.
Insurers and insurer fees are expected to cover the cost of the program.
“Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Friday in a White House press release. ”We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women’s organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals."
The compromise comes after negative feedback last spring from several high-profile religious groups — including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — that demanded clarification from the government as to what exactly constitutes a religiously affiliated organization. However, many objected to the assertion that faith-based institutions did not have to provide contraceptive coverage. Georgetown Law Center student Sandra Fluke (L ’12), who gained national recognition after political commentator Rush Limbaugh made inflammatory remarks about her, was among those who protested for the right to free birth control.
The changes will be open for public comment through April 8, 2013 after which HHS will confer on the exact language of the law. The administration is expected to finalize the new regulations sometime in August.
“Now that the proposed regulations have been released, Georgetown will be reviewing them carefully,” university spokeswoman Stacy Kerr said.
Jayme Amann (SFS '15), an intern at the Rosslyn-based nonprofit Feminist Majority Foundation, was concerned that the change to the legislation's language would make it harder for female students at Georgetown to more easily access contraception access in the near future.
“Although the mandate requires that insurance plans cover employees, this is actually nothing new to Georgetown,” Amann said. “As many of us learned last year with the Sandra Fluke debacle, Georgetown professors are already covered. I think it’s outrageous that Georgetown’s solution to not offering birth control under their student insurance plan is abstinence.”
Georgetown University College Democrats Communications Director Christopher Kraft (SFS '15) was more optimistic that the compromise would allay the concerns of religious leaders.
“While we wish that religious institutions were prepared to provide comprehensive contraception coverage for those they insure, we believe the Affordable Care Act revision is a suitable compromise resulting from a passionate conflict over the meaning of religious freedom in this pluralistic country,” Kraft said. “We hope that this concession will be sufficient for the country's more conservative religious leadership.”
Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, was also hopeful that the new set of rules would help the administration and its critics reach a middle ground.
“I think it's very positive that they have fixed the very confusing four part definition of a religious employer,” Reese said. "It also looks like they have figured out how to get free contraceptives to the employees of religious organizations without the involvement of the institutions, so the lawyers are going to have to look at the fine print but hopefully this solves the problem."
However, Reese added that the temporary resolution on contraception would probably not preclude future battles between the Obama administration and conservatives over the meaning of religious freedom.
“This is just one dispute in the area of religious liberties,” Reese said. “We’ll have to see how the others get resolved.”