WASHINGTON — The Obama administration issued its final compromise Friday for religiously affiliated charities, hospitals and other nonprofits that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans.
The Health and Human Services Department said the final plan simplifies how insurers provide the coverage separately from faith-based groups and gives religious nonprofits more time to comply. However, the changes are unlikely to resolve objections from faith groups that the requirement violates their religious freedom.
More than 60 lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule. The cases are expected to reach the Supreme Court.
The birth-control rule was first introduced in February 2012 as part of President Obama’s health-care law. The original plan exempted churches and other houses of worship, but required faith-affiliated charities, universities and other nonprofits to provide the coverage for their employees.
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The regulation became an election-year issue as Roman Catholic bishops, evangelicals and some religious leaders lobbied for a broader exemption. The Obama administration offered a series of accommodations, leading to the final rules released Friday.
Under the compromise, administration officials said they simplified the definition of religious organizations that are fully exempt from the requirement. The change means a church that also ran a soup kitchen would not have to comply.
Other religious nonprofits must notify their insurance company that they object to birth-control coverage. The insurer or administrator of the plan will then notify affected employees separately that coverage will be provided at no cost. The insurers would be reimbursed by a credit against fees owed the government.
Michael Hash, director of the health-reform office of the Health and Human Services Department, said the final regulation spells out in more detail the buffer between religious charities and contraceptive coverage. Faith-based groups were given another reprieve — until Jan. 1 — to comply.
Judy Waxman, of the National Women’s Law Center, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said her organization could accept the plan. “It’s fair,” she said.
However, Eric Rassbach, an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm challenging the contraception-coverage rule, said: “It doesn’t really change the overall way they’re trying to do this.” The Becket Fund represents many of the organizations challenging the regulation in federal court.
Lawsuits against the requirement are split almost evenly between nonprofit plaintiffs — including several Roman Catholic dioceses — and for-profit businesses, which say the rules go against their religious beliefs. For-profit businesses are not included in the accommodation released Friday.
Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby Stores is the largest and best-known of the businesses that have sued. On Thursday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver allowed the lawsuit to move forward on religious grounds. The judges said the portion of the law that requires Hobby Lobby to offer certain kinds of birth control to employees is particularly onerous and sent the case back to a court in Oklahoma.
On Friday, the lower court granted Hobby Lobby a temporary injunction against full enforcement of the law. Businesses that fail to comply potentially face fines based on the number of workers they employ and other factors. The amount for Hobby Lobby could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Neither the Catholic Health Association, a trade group for hospitals, nor the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had an immediate reaction Friday, saying the regulations were being studied.