HHS Issues Proposed Rule Expanding Religious Exemption for Contraception Coverage

This morning the Department of Health and Human Services issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in response to ongoing objections by religious institutions over coverage of contraception in their health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act.

One of the chief objections of the religious institutions to the previous rule was what they considered to be a too-narrow definition of a religious employer. Under the framework set out by the Obama administration last year, to qualify for the exemption from the contraception coverage requirement, a religious employer would have to meet a four-pronged test. That test required an employer to show that “inculcation of religious values” is its purpose; that it employed primarily people who share its religious beliefs; that it primarily serves people who share its religious beliefs; and is a non-profit organization as described in the Internal Revenue Code. Religious organizations protested that this four-pronged test would only exempt houses of worship, but not, say, a church that served people of different faiths through a soup kitchen. Under the new proposed rule (which is still subject to a public comment period), an employer seeking an exemption would only have to meet the forth prong of the test, thus widely expanding the universe of organizations that would qualify for the exemption.

The exemption does not apply to for-profit companies, some of whom have sued the Obama administration, claiming that the coverage requirement violates their religious freedom.

For organizations who do not qualify for the exemption, but still do not want to provide coverage, the proposed rule would require them work with insurers to provide separate contraception coverage at no cost to either the institution or the insured employee. For self-insured organizations, the organization’s third-party administrator would be required to arrange for such coverage through an insurance carrier. *

Surely the expanded definition of the exempt organizations will satisfy evangelical and Catholic institutions who objected that the house of worship exemption was too narrow. Last year, though, when this issue was first being contested, there were suggestions that some organizations wanted no part of providing the coverage, even if they weren’t incurring the cost of it. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops today issued a statement that it was studying the proposed rule. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and a frequent commenter on Catholic concerns, issued a statement that “HHS and the administration have gone out of their way to resolve the concerns of religious institutions that object to covering contraceptives in their insurance programs.” Planned Parenthood lauded the move in a statement, saying it “will ensure that women can access no co-pay birth control as part of basic health care.”

[For more reaction from Catholics for Choice, see this post.]


* This post has been changed to clarify which organizations would be required to provide the accommodation.

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