The Obama administration announced Friday that it would give Catholic hospitals and other religious institutions an extra year to comply with a new requirement that most health plans provide contraceptive benefits at no cost to their members.
The administration, however, held fast to the mandate that most health plans eventually offer free contraception. That infuriated Roman Catholic bishops and some other religious leaders who had vigorously opposed the rule as a violation of their religious liberty. They wanted a broad swath of religious organizations exempted from the rule.
Important election-year constituents — women's advocates and liberal groups — were delighted by the administration's hold-the-line decision. They had been worried the White House might exempt large numbers of religiously affiliated employers, such as Catholic hospitals and universities.
Places of worship, including churches and synagogues, already were exempt.
By refusing to broaden the exemption, "in effect the president is saying that we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences," complained Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairwoman of the board of Franciscan Alliance Inc., a system of 13 Catholic hospitals, said, "This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and 1st Amendment rights."
Women's groups praised the administration. The decision "means that millions of women who would otherwise pay $15 to $50 a month will have access to affordable birth control, helping to save hundreds of dollars each year," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, praised the administration's move, saying that "the bishops pulled out all the stops in their campaign" against the requirement. "This was a victory for common sense and scientific advice in the interests of the common good," he added.
The new rule stems from a provision in President Obama's healthcare law that aims to increase workers' use of preventive services by requiring that the services be provided at no cost.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in announcing the final rule Friday, said that the decision "strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
The new rule takes effect Aug. 1.
That means that most new health plans, as defined by Health and Human Services, will be required to provide the free contraceptives as of Aug. 1 or when plans start their new years after that. Most people won't be affected until Jan. 1, 2013, because most plans start their years in January.
Only organizations that currently don't offer contraceptive services for religious reasons will be eligible for the one-year delay, the agency said.