Magazine article The Christian Century

New Obama Proposal Gives Religious Groups More Say in Birth Control Mandate

Magazine article The Christian Century

New Obama Proposal Gives Religious Groups More Say in Birth Control Mandate

Article excerpt

The Obama administration is offering to expand the number of faith-based groups that can be exempt from the controversial contraception mandate and is proposing that third-party companies administer coverage for self-insured faith-based groups at no cost.

At its heart, the newest' offering from the White House would allow religious groups--dioceses, denominations and others--to decide which affiliated institutions are "religious" and therefore exempt from the new requirement that employers offer free contraception coverage as part of employee insurance plans.

The proposals are an effort by the administration to blunt criticisms of the controversial regulation, especially by the nation's Catholic bishops, who have been at loggerheads with the White House since President Obama announced the contraception mandate in January.

Having been sharply criticized by faith groups for not providing a sufficiently broad exemption for religious groups, on February 10 Obama outlined an "accommodation" that tried to circumvent most of the problems by having insurance companies-rather than religious employers--provide the birth control coverage through a separate rider and at no cost to the employer.

While that move appeased some concerns, Catholic bishops and others argued that the religious exemption was still too narrow and could set a dangerous precedent by appearing to allow the government to determine what groups within a faith should be considered religious.

Others objected that many religious groups self-insure in order to save money, and so having the insurer pay for contraception coverage rather than the employer made no difference because insurer and employer are one and the same.

The 32-page proposal, published March 16 in the Federal Register, goes out of its way to state that "this religious exemption is intended solely for purposes of the contraceptive coverage requirement" and does not "set a precedent for any other purpose."

"Whether an employer is designated as 'religious' for these purposes is not intended as a judgment about the mission, sincerity, or commitment of the employer, and the use of such designation is limited to defining the class that qualifies for this specific exemption," states the proposed rule.

The other main innovation in the new proposal is to have a "third-party administrator of the group health plan or some other independent entity" assume responsibility for the contraception coverage for self-insured organizations, with various proposals for ensuring that self-insured groups with religious objections would not directly or indirectly pay for the birth control policy. …

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