Obama Says Contraceptive Rule Balances Religious Rights

President Barack Obama sought to quell the uproar over a requirement that employers provide coverage for contraception by saying religious-affiliated charities and hospitals won’t have to pay for such services.

Instead, insurance companies will be compelled to offer them to insured employees of those institutions without charge. Obama said his administration, through the Department of Health and Human Services, was acting to preserve access to contraceptive coverage and at the same time respond to objections from religious officials.

With the revision “religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women,” Obama said yesterday at the White House.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which led criticism of the administration’s initial rule, said the revision lacks clear protection for religious groups, employers and individuals, and is “unacceptable.”

The law’s mandate of insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception “remains a grave moral concern,” the group said in a written statement. “The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”

Before his remarks, Obama called Dolan, Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards, according to an administration official.

Insurers React

America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group for the industry, also withheld its support. “We are concerned about the precedent this proposed rule would set,” AHIP press secretary Robert Zirkelbach said in a statement. “As we learn more about how this rule would be operationalized, we will provide comments through the regulatory process.”

The presidents of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Catholic Health Association of the United States issued statements in support of the shift in policy.

The requirement was part of the health-care law passed in 2010 and the initial rule was announced Jan. 20. The move to revisit the issue so soon after the policy was announced indicated the furor from religious institutions and some Catholic Democrats in Congress caught the administration off guard.

Officials, including HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, repeatedly said the transition period before the rule takes effect in 2013 -- after the election -- was built in to address concerns that Obama’s advisers anticipated from the Catholic church.

‘Political Football’

Obama said that in addition to legitimate concerns of religious organizations, some of the critics were turning it into a “political football.”

“It became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option,” he said.

The administration’s original decision created an election-year split among Senate Democrats, with some Catholics in the party such as John Kerry of Massachusetts and Claire McCaskill of Missouri joining Republicans in calls to modify or scrap it.

Obama ally Democrat Tim Kaine, a Catholic and a former Virginia governor running for the U.S. Senate who was critical of the administration’s earlier plan, said in a statement that he supports the changes announced yesterday.

Republican Opposition

Republicans indicated they planned to continue the debate. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah quickly denounced what he called “a so-called compromise,” saying, “This is about religious freedom and anything short of a full exemption is no compromise.”

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri called the modification “an accounting gimmick” and said he will keep pushing for legislation to “reverse this unconstitutional mandate in its entirety.”

Republicans 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 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.

An Obama campaign adviser argued that the president’s stance on availability still is a winning argument in an election year because it has broad support among women.

Impact on Women

Obama and Sebelius, who was interviewed on CNN, stressed that almost 99 percent of women relied on contraceptives at some point in their lives and that about half of those 18 to 34 have struggled to pay for it.

“Every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health,” Obama said.

Campaign and White House officials drew attention all week to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney’s opposition to the mandate even though the Massachusetts health-care law he implemented as governor included a similar rule.

“The former governor of Massachusetts is an odd messenger on this given that the services that this rule would provide for women around the country are the same that are provided in Massachusetts and were provided when he was governor,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Feb. 8.

It’s still too early to tell how the issue plays out politically, said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic media consultant who has advised several presidential campaigns.

“It’s too muddled,” Carrick said. “This was going to be a negotiation from the beginning. It was going to take a year to get it done.”

Calling it “a confusing, complex issue,” Carrick said there probably won’t “be any big political winners out of this, or losers.”

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