The Obama administration offered some more accommodations on Friday for religious organizations that have been complaining about a controversial contraception-coverage rule and offered details to guide religious organizations that insure their own employees. Officials also announced that student health plans would have to cover contraception free of charge to women.
After vehement opposition from religious and conservative groups, particularly Catholic bishops, the Obama administration last month offered an “accommodation” to a health reform rule requiring employers to offer health insurance that covers birth control without charge to women. For religious employers with objections, insurance companies would pick up the tab for contraception coverage.
That change did not satisfy the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which this week called it “dubious” and asked Congress to overturn the rule. One complaint was that it was impossible for self-insured religious employers -- which directly pay medical claims for employees — to separate funding for contraception.
The Obama administration proposed three ways self-insured religious employers could avoid paying for contraception. The first would have a third-party administrator pay for the contraception coverage and recoup the costs through drug rebates or other fees. The second would have the federal government pay the third-party administrator a rebate within an insurance fee program that starts in 2014 and is established under the health reform law. The third option would have the third-party administrator contract with an Office of Personnel Management plan on state insurance exchanges to offer contraception coverage alone.
For insurers that collect premiums from religious organizations and their employees, the Obama administration suggested they pay for contraception coverage with the “estimated savings from the elimination of the need to pay for services that would otherwise be used if contraceptives were not covered” --in other words, what they save from not having to cover a lot of pregnancies.
The proposed rule is open for comment for 90 days. Administration officials, who briefed reporters on the condition that they not be identified by name, said the federal government wanted lots of comment on how these options would work.
“We are extensively seeking comment from the public on the next round of rulemaking,” an official said.
The administration also announced that student health plans would have to cover contraception for women, but if religious colleges object, they can also qualify for the year-long reprieve that religious employers can sign up for this year. The contraception coverage requirement, however, does not apply to self-insured student health plans. Obama administration officials said that was a “hole” in the statute.
Women’s health groups were quick to applaud the Obama administration’s announcement.
“The proposal released today make clears that the Obama administration is fulfilling its promise that women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays and no additional hurdles, no matter where they work,” said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards in a statement. “Women who buy health insurance from their college or university will have access to affordable birth control, just like women who receive health insurance from their employer.”