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Churches Are Exempt From U.S. Requirement to Cover Contraception, HHS Says

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

…But religious-affiliated organizations are not. Becket Fund lawsuits move forward.


By Alex Wayne

Published: 1/20/2012

Churches will be exempt from a U.S. rule requiring coverage of birth-control pills and devices at no cost to patients, the Department of Health and Human Services said today.

Religious-affiliated businesses such as universities and hospitals associated with the Catholic Church must still offer birth control coverage by August 2013, said Mary Wakefield, administrator of the agency’s Health Resources and Services Administration, in a conference call. The requirement has already prompted two lawsuits from religious colleges.

The 2010 health-care law requires insurers to cover preventive health services without co-payment. U.S. health officials announced in August that those services would include contraception, including birth control pills, implants and sterilization procedures.

“Most women will no longer have to worry about having to skip this critical preventive care because their plan doesn’t cover it or they can’t afford an expensive co-pay,” Wakefield said.

Religious organizations opposed to birth control demanded an exception to the requirement. In a compromise, the government agreed to exempt churches and businesses they administer. Nonprofits affiliated with churches got a one-year delay before they must comply.

“This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

Schools’ Lawsuits

Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, and Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colorado sued the government in federal court to overturn the requirement, arguing that it violates their First Amendment rights and a law protecting exercise of religion, said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a nonprofit law firm in Washington representing both schools.

“This is not really about access to contraception,” Smith said in a phone interview. “The mandate is about forcing these religious groups to pay for it against their beliefs.”

Groups favoring abortion rights and access to contraception say that the health benefits of birth control outweigh religious concerns. The U.S. Institute of Medicine, a nonpartisan scientific agency that advises Congress and the government, recommended in July that Sebelius include birth control among preventive services that insurers should have to cover.

“Doctors and public health experts agree that increased access to birth control is not only one of the best ways to prevent unintended pregnancies, it also improves health outcomes for women and their families,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement.

Wakefield said she wasn’t sure how the government would enforce the requirement. Women whose employers don’t cover contraception even after the requirement takes effect should complain to state consumer assistance programs, said Mayra Alvarez, director of health policy at HHS.
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