Obama to Move to Quell Birth-Control Uproar

The Obama administration, confronted with criticism over a contraception-coverage rule that’s outraged the Catholic Church and divided Congress, is preparing to announce as soon as today what an administration official described as an accommodation.

The change is designed to offer religious organizations that run hospitals and universities more comfort while still ensuring women have free access to contraception, said an administration official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

The official said it doesn’t represent a compromise because it doesn’t undermine the the Health and Human Services Department’s rule giving women free access to birth control.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make a statement at the White House at 12:15 p.m. Washington time, the administration announced, without giving a topic for his remarks.

The controversy was touched off after the administration said it will enforce a provision of the 2010 health-care overhaul requiring contraceptives to be provided by employers who offer health insurance. Church leaders and nonprofit religious groups that primarily employ and serve people of the same faith would be exempt, while church-affiliated hospitals and universities would not.

The decision created an election-year split among Senate Democrats, with some Catholics in the party joining Republicans in calls to modify or scrap it.

In the face of opposition from religious leaders, Vice President Joe Biden yesterday hinted at the possibility of a compromise before the mandate takes effect. In an interview with a Cincinnati radio station, he said a “significant attempt” will be made to find a solution.

‘Work It Out’

“I am determined to see that this gets worked out, and I believe we will work it out,” Biden said on radio station WLW.

The White House was preparing to make changes after some Catholic Democrats in the Senate such as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill of Missouri said they want the administration to make changes.

“I’ve told the White House that I think they need to find a compromise that allows women to get access to birth control through their employer’s health-care coverage, but without pressing this issue of religious freedom to the extent that the current scenario does,” said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who also is running for re-election this year.

The intra-party rift is providing an election-year gift to Republicans. They are seeking to demonstrate unity against aspects of the health-care law unpopular with their party’s base and to highlight differences that might gain support from Catholics and social conservatives.

Catholic Voters

Catholic voters are a critical bloc in such swing states as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that have competitive Senate races and are battlegrounds in the presidential election.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, a Catholic, said the administration’s health-care rule is an “unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country,” and he vowed to change it.

The rule was proposed in August by the Department of Health and Human Services to require individual and group health plans to cover contraceptives among other preventive medical services. An exemption for “religious employers” left out thousands of religious-affiliated organizations, including charities, health- care providers and schools.

During a two-month period, the agency received more than 200,000 public comments. In January, the administration said the August rule would generally stand, and nonprofit groups that don’t offer contraception coverage for religious reasons would have until August 2013 to comply.

Religious groups and lawmakers in both parties lobbied for a broader exemption, though the administration rejected that.

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Washington at mtalev@bloomberg.net; Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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