Obama accommodates religious groups with change to birth control rule

President Obama said new changes to a health insurance mandate will accommodate concerns about religious freedom without compromising healthcare access for women, even as he complained that critics had turned the mandate into a “political football.”

“Religious liberty will be protected and a law that provides free preventative care will not discriminate,” Obama said as he announced changes to a rule that had sparked a backlash from Catholic organizations and members of both political parties.

The president spoke briefly on the issue, shortly after the changes had been announced by White House officials, and took no questions from the press. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stood with the president, but did not comment on the decision.

The changes will allow more religiously affiliated groups to opt out of the mandate, which required employers to offer health insurance that covered birth control at no cost. Under the revised rule, employees at Catholic and other religious hospitals, charities and universities would have access to free birth control through their insurance companies.    

Those groups had led the opposition since the rule was announced last month. But in recent weeks the chorus of critics had grown. Republican presidential candidates, lawmakers and even some Catholic Democrats in Congress had spoken out against the policy.

Obama said he had always been sensitive to the concerns about religious liberty, “as a citizen and as a Christian.” He suggested some groups had piled on the issue in an attempt to hit the president politically.

“Some folks in Washington may want to treat this as a wedge issue. I never saw it that way,” Obama said.

The shift was likely to appease some of those critics, but not all. The Catholic Health Assn., a group that gave crucial support to the president’s healthcare law but had sharply criticized the birth control rule, quickly announced its endorsement.

“The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed,” CHA president Sister Carol Keehan said in a statement. 

Before the announcement was made, theU.S. Conference of Catholic Bishopshad suggested it would have reservations with this sort of compromise, but the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Insurance companies were also still weighing in.

“We are in the process of analyzing how the administration’s proposal would work,” said Kelly Miller, a spokeswoman for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Assn., one of the insurance industry’s leading trade groups.

Citing extensive research on the cost-effectiveness of contraceptive coverage, administration officials said the new requirement should not place any additional cost on insurers or employers.

Insurance industry officials historically have argued that the contraceptive coverage does add costs, a case they have made repeatedly around the country as state lawmakers enacted legislation requiring contraceptive coverage.

Though 28 states have some kind of contraceptive coverage mandate, none has developed a requirement like the proposal unveiled by the White House Friday.

Supporters of the original rule also expressed their support. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the decision showed that “President Obama is firmly committed to protecting women’s health.”

Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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