WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration tried anew Friday to defuse controversy over a requirement in the healthcare law designed to broaden access to contraception, proposing new regulations to protect some religious organizations from having to cover these services in their health plans.
The proposal, which comes after more than a year of heated debate, expands an exemption from the contraceptive mandate for churches and other houses of worship.
That was a nod to intense criticism from many religious groups that have been enraged by the provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires most employers to provide women contraceptive coverage with no co-pays or other cost-sharing.
But the Obama administration will still require insurance plans offered by hospitals, universities and other employers with religious affiliations to provide contraceptive coverage with no cost-sharing for employees.
Many of these organizations, including Catholic hospitals and religious universities, had complained that this arrangement would indirectly require them to sanction the provision of services they object to on moral grounds.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a leading critic of the contraceptive mandate, was noncommittal Friday. "We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later," he said.
But a religious-rights group that represents employers said the new proposal does not go far enough.
"All Americans, not just those in church organizations, are guaranteed freedom of conscience in their daily lives and work," said Matt Bowman, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has filed lawsuits on behalf of family-based companies.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the new proposal Friday as a fair compromise.
"Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns,” Sebelius said. "We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals."
The latest administration proposal does not address separate complaints from for-profit companies that object to the contraceptive coverage mandate. Several of these firms are suing in federal court to block the requirement.
Friday's proposals drew quick praise from leading advocates for expanded contraceptive coverage.
"We applaud the Obama administration's unwavering support for implementing the Affordable Care Act in ways that will ensure women have access to basic preventive care, including contraception," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
"That is a fundamental promise of reform, and a critical advance for women’s health," she said.