Obama announces compromise plan in contraceptive firestorm
Reuters Feb 10, 2012 – 10:02 AM ET | Last Updated: Feb 10, 2012 12:37 PM ET http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/02/10 ... firestorm/By Stephanie Simon and Caren Bohan
The White House, in an abrupt shift aimed at quelling an election-year firestorm, announced on Friday that religious employers would not be required to offer free birth control to workers and that the onus would instead be put on insurers.
The compromise, to be formally unveiled by President Barack Obama, seeks to accommodate religious organizations outraged by a new rule that would have required them to offer free contraceptive coverage.
Instead, the new approach puts the burden on insurance companies, ordering them to provide workers at religious-affiliated institutions with free family planning if they request it, without involving their employer at all, the White House said.
The rule had sparked an outcry from Catholic Church leaders, Republicans and other social conservatives who denounced it as an attack on religious freedom.
The policy shift is aimed at defusing the controversy and preventing it from becoming a liability for Obama’s re-election campaign, while at the same time trying not to anger his liberal base. But it was unlikely to assuage all of the concerns of church leaders.
“Under the new policy announced today, women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where she works,” the White House said in a statement.
“If a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge,” it said.
The regulation at the center of the controversy requires religious-affiliated groups such as charities, hospitals and universities, but not churches themselves, to provide employees coverage for birth control as other health insurance providers must do. The Catholic Church opposes most methods of birth control.
The compromise was crafted by employees of the White House Office on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Sources close to the deliberations said many in the office were dismayed by the original plan released by the Obama administration last month, which would have required large church-affiliated employers such as colleges and hospitals to subsidize free birth control, including sterilization, for their workers.
With hundred of pastors across the country reading letters of protest during Mass and tens of thousands of concerned citizens signing an online petition demanding changes, members of the White House’s faith-based team scrambled to come up with an alternative that would not compromise the administration’s central goal of expanding access to family planning for all women.
“Honestly, it’s a win for all sides. It’s huge,” said Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at the Catholic University of America who has advised the Obama administration on outreach to Catholic and was briefed on the compromise early on Friday by the White House’s faith team.
The plan announced Friday was one of the few possible solutions that would not have required legislation, but could be imposed by executive order.
The compromise was welcomed by some women’s groups. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation, issued a statement saying the new plan “does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth control benefits.”
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, also praised the result, saying she was “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated.”
The administration had been looking at several state laws, including those that let religious employers opt out of covering birth control in their insurance packages, so long as they refer women to a provider that will offer the benefit at low cost.
But Catholic leaders opposed that option, arguing that referring women to low-cost contraception is as immoral as distributing the drugs and devices first-hand.
Polls indicate a majority of Americans and Catholics support the rule. A Public Religion Research Institute poll taken last week found 55 percent of Americans want employers to provide healthcare plans that cover contraception and birth control, including nearly six in 10 Catholics.
It was not immediately clear whether insurance companies had been consulted on the new mandate that they provide free birth control if employers won’t subsidize that portion of the health benefits package.
But several studies have shown that adding contraceptive coverage does not increase costs to insurers and in fact may decrease costs, by reducing unintended pregnancies.
© 2012 Thomson Reuters