Reeling from two weeks of attacks they didn’t see coming and an unprecedented public uproar, White House officials scrambled on Friday to remake a contraceptive insurance policy widely attacked as hostile to Catholic institutions.
Only a few weeks after thinking the firestorm would pass—and days after insisting problems would be worked out during a yearlong implementation process—the administration changed course, and President Obama announced a new policy that he said would provide free contraceptive services to women but keep church organizations at arms length.
Complaining about those who have made the issue “a political football,” the president said the controversy made it impossible for the administration to stick to its planned timetable. “It became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not an option. We needed to move this faster," Obama said. "So last week, I directed the Department of Health and Human Services to speed up the process that was envisioned," he added. "We were not going to spend a year doing this. We were going to spend a week doing this."
That it fell to the president to come to the White House briefing room and personally unveil a rule change normally announced by a Cabinet or sub-Cabinet official dramatically demonstrated how high the stakes had risen since Republicans accused him of waging “a war against religion.” Further proof of the stakes in a presidential election year: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said her department has received an unprecedented 200,000 comments on the decision.
Several leading progressive Catholics, including former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, were critical in kick-starting the sense of urgency. Their assault on the original decision carried more weight at the White House than the anticipated attacks from a conservative Catholic hierarchy that has always been resistant to the president’s charms.
The bishops had proven more effective than expected, using letters to the faithful and television appearances to cast themselves less as defenders of a contraceptive policy rejected by most Catholics and more as champions of religious freedom and the First Amendment. In a good sign, Dionne signed off on the revised plan, though he also scolded the president. “The administration will have to think hard about how and why it mishandled the issue and courted a controversy it could have avoided,” Dionne wrote in The Post, even as he praised the administration for sticking to its guns on the health issue while nodding to religious freedom. Kaine, meanwhile, said he was "pleased" with the steps the White House had taken.
The new policy shifts the onus for paying for birth control from religious organizations to insurance companies, requiring them to provide contraceptive services at no cost to employees independent of any group coverage provided through the religious organization. Insurers would be barred from charging anything extra to the religious organization to cover the added cost.
The president cast this as a balance between what he called the "many genuine concerns" voiced by religious leaders and the need to provide no-cost contraceptive care to women. He objected to what he called “the more cynical desire on the part of some to make it into a political football." Without mentioning the Republican presidential candidates who have been fueling the controversy, he chided those who "may want to treat this as another political wedge issue." He said it should not be seen as political. "I certainly never saw it that way. This is an issue where people of good will on both sides of the debate have been sorting through complicated questions to find a solution that works for everyone,” Obama said.
But even before he announced the new policy, his top aides were insisting that he really isn’t retreating or even compromising. Their position, outlined to reporters, is that this change was somehow always in the works and one that does not deviate from what they call the “core principle” that all women should have access to free contraceptive services. “We didn’t compromise on that,” a senior administration official said. “This is an accommodation.” They did not deny, though, that this is a solution that has long been available and one that could have been adopted before HHS announced the controversial policy Jan. 20. And the new White House position is different from the pronouncements made since the Catholic hierarchy started mobilizing public opinion against the administration.
“We’ve been working on it for some time,” said the senior official. “When the initial announcement was made a few weeks ago, we were very clear that we still had more work to do, particularly as it related to religious organizations that might have an objection.” He added, “We weren’t just starting that work this week. It has been happening several months and we were able to reach a conclusion that we think is the right way forward.”
Sebelius said the new rule will be published on Friday afternoon, a move that effectively ends the debate and, the White House hopes, puts the current fight behind them. Appearing on CNN, Sebelius said some of the controversy was fueled by “some of the more cynical political folks who may be either on the campaign trail or inside the beltway.” But she said most of the public outcry was “urging us to find an appropriate balance.” She suggested the new compromise finds that balance.
The president noted that he had talked to leading Catholic officials before the Jan. 20 announcement and he indicated that the compromise should satisfy their demands not to be directly providing coverage for practices the church finds morally offensive.
But it is not at all certain the new policy will satisfy the bishops. Certainly the Republican presidential candidates who seized on the issue are unlikely to be silenced. And the insurance companies now saddled with fresh costs have yet to react.
Senior administration officials would not talk about their private conversations. But there were no indications that either the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the insurance industry signed off on the compromise before the White House announced it.