Churches to Be Exempt From U.S. Contraception Coverage Rule

Churches are exempted from a U.S. rule requiring coverage of contraceptives under an Obama administration decision that forces their affiliated schools and hospitals to begin providing birth control in 18 months.

The 2010 health-care law requires health plans to offer preventive medical services at no cost to patients. U.S. health officials announced in August that those services would include contraception, including birth control pills, implants and sterilization procedures.

Religious organizations opposed to birth control demanded an exception to the requirement, and two universities sued. In a compromise, the government agreed to exempt churches and businesses they administer while giving nonprofits affiliated with them a one-year delay to comply, said Mary Wakefield of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Most women will no longer have to worry about having to skip this critical preventive care because their plan doesn’t cover it or they can’t afford an expensive co-pay,” said Wakefield, administrator of the agency’s Health Resources and Services Administration, in a conference call.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the extra time gives the organizations more time and flexibility to adapt.

“This proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” Sebelius said in a statement.

Schools’ Lawsuits

Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, and Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado sued the government in federal court to overturn the requirement, arguing that it violates their First Amendment rights and a law protecting exercise of religion, said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit law firm in Washington representing both schools.

“This is not really about access to contraception,” Smith said in a phone interview. “The mandate is about forcing these religious groups to pay for it against their beliefs.”

Health Benefits Weighed

Groups favoring abortion rights and access to contraception say that the health benefits of birth control outweigh religious concerns. The U.S. Institute of Medicine, a nonpartisan scientific agency that advises Congress and the government, recommended in July that Sebelius include birth control among preventive services that insurers should have to cover.

“Doctors and public health experts agree that increased access to birth control is not only one of the best ways to prevent unintended pregnancies, it also improves health outcomes for women and their families,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement.

Wakefield said she wasn’t sure how the government would enforce the requirement. Women whose employers don’t cover contraception even after the requirement takes effect should complain to state consumer assistance programs, said Mayra Alvarez, director of health policy at HHS.

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