(Changes source; adds comment by Planned Parenthood and Becket
Aug 22 The Obama administration will ensure
access to birth control coverage for employees of closely held
companies that object on religious grounds to contraception, one
of the health benefits mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
The move follows a Supreme Court ruling in June that allowed
certain for-profit companies to refuse to cover contraceptives
due to the religious beliefs of their owners. It
provides for insurers to offer contraception to employees
through separate coverage.
President Barack Obama's healthcare reform law requires
companies to provide free birth control coverage as a preventive
service included in their health plans.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had already
provided an exception to non-profit groups with religious
affiliations, such as certain universities or hospitals, in
2013. The exception requires insurers to cover the cost of birth
control for employees of such organizations, separate from the
benefits paid for by the employers.
On Friday, it proposed an extension of that rule to closely
held companies in rules published in the Federal Register.
The rule is in direct response to the Supreme Court decision
in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores Ltd, a family-owned chain of
craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp of
Pennsylvania. The two companies combined employ nearly 14,000
people. The accommodation is expected to impact at nearly 50
additional companies that have filed similar lawsuits.
At the time, the justices ruled that for-profit companies
can make claims under a 1993 federal law called the Religious
Freedom Restoration Act that was enacted to protect religious
liberty. They had suggested that the government could extend the
accommodation made for non-profit groups.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an advocacy group, said the
move comes amid pressure on birth control access.
"Today's proposal to stem the growing tide of corporations
attempting to deny employees birth control coverage only
reinforces the need for Congress to take action so that no
for-profit company can come between a woman and her access to
affordable birth control," the group said in a statement.
HHS also proposed on Friday an interim rule for non-profits
to lay out additional ways that these companies can provide
notice to the government in writing of their religious
objections to providing contraception coverage.
The interim rule for non-profits is largely in response to a
Supreme Court order in July, issued days after the Hobby Lobby
ruling, that gave a temporary exemption to Wheaton College, a
Christian college in Illinois. It had said that the initial
process for informing insurers of their religious standing also
violated their beliefs.
In the initial process, eligible non-profits had to provide
a "self certification," described by one lower court judge as a
"permission slip" authorizing insurance companies to provide the
coverage. The challengers said that step alone violated their
religious rights, regardless of whether employees ultimately
receive contraception coverage.
The Becek Fund for Religious Liberty said that it was
"hopeful the administration's new rule will reflect the robust
protections that have always been given to religious individuals
in this country."
(Reporting by Caroline Humer; Additional reporting by Lawrence
Hurley in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Michele Gershberg,
Marguerita Choy and Leslie Adler)