WASHINGTON – In an election-year decision certain to disappoint religious conservatives, the Obama administration announced Friday that church-affiliated institutions will get only one additional year to meet a new rule to cover birth control free of charge.
Friday's announcement by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius does not apply to houses of worship. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship were already exempt from the birth control coverage rule.
But in many cases, other religious-affiliated employers such as hospitals and universities traditionally have not provided any birth control coverage for their employees. They were seeking a broader exemption that would allow them to continue that practice.
The new rule is part of a package of improved preventive services for women under President Obama's health care overhaul. Birth control is on a list of services that most workplace health plans will have to cover free of charge to employees.
Instead, the one-year extension applies to nonprofit institutions such as church-affiliated hospitals, universities and social service organizations. They will now have until August 1, 2013, to comply.
Because of the way health insurance plans work, their employees will not have access to the new coverage until January 1, 2014, in most cases.
Birth control use is virtually universal in the United States, and most employer health plans already cover it, usually with copays for employees. Last year, an advisory panel from the prestigious Institute of Medicine recommended that the government require birth control coverage as preventive care under Obama's law, meaning it would become available free of charge.
Sebelius quickly agreed, issuing a new federal regulation.
But religious groups complained that a conscience exemption included in that rule was too narrowly written. Catholic hospitals, which defied the bishops to support passage of Obama's health care law in Congress, were among those who objected.
Sebelius said her decision Friday was carefully considered.
"I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," Sebelius said in a statement.
Nonetheless, conservatives in Congress are already pursuing legislation to try to block the regulation. And Republican presidential candidates say they would derail it also, by repealing the health care law if elected.
For most American women, the birth control coverage requirement will take effect sooner. Employer health plans in most cases have to comply by August of this year. Because of the time involved in adding new coverage, that means the majority of women will be able to receive free birth control coverage starting January 1, 2013.