Proposal to amend ObamaCare contraceptive rule met with skepticism

Conservative and religious groups panned the Obama administration's long-awaited "accommodation" meant to spare religious-affiliated groups from the so-called contraceptive mandate, calling a proposal unveiled Friday "radically inadequate."

The Department of Health and Human Services announced the broader opt-out Friday a year after Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pledged to address complaints from Catholic schools, religious-affiliated service providers and other organizations.

The proposed regulations, though, did not satisfy the widespread concerns about the ObamaCare rule requiring near-universal access to contraceptive coverage for employees.

Businesses like Hobby Lobby, which sued the administration over the rule, would not be affected by the change because it is not a religious employer -- though the owner of that company has objected on religious and moral grounds. Critics said Friday that all businesses should be exempt if they want, while also voicing concern that religious-affiliated groups would still be "conduits" for contraceptives.

"After over a year of litigation, our clients and many others like them were hoping for much, much more from the administration," Kyle Duncan, general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said on a conference call. The group has represented several religious-affiliated schools suing over the rule.

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    Duncan also said in a statement that the proposal "does nothing to protect the religious liberty of millions of Americans."

    "The rights of family businesses like Hobby Lobby are still being violated," he said.

    The pro-life Susan B. Anthony List also panned the announcement. "There must be no religious 'test' by the government as to who, and what type of entities, are entitled to a conscience," President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement. Her group said "non-religious entities" such as their own should be taken into consideration.

    On a Department of Health and Human Services conference call, Deputy Director of Policy and Regulation Chiquita Brooks-LaSure noted that the rule is "not yet final."

    Still, she stressed that the changes would spare many with religious objections, while allowing women access to free birth control.

    "No nonprofit religious institution will be forced to pay for or provide contraceptive coverage, and churches and houses of worship are specifically exempt," she said.

    For nonprofit religious organizations like hospitals and schools, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the administration will allow them to offer coverage that does not include contraception.

    For those with insured plans, the insurer would be required to provide enrollees with "no-cost contraceptive coverage" through a separate policy.

    For self-insured plans, a third-party administrator would work with an insurer to set up no-cost coverage through other policies.

    Religious groups had said the old birth-control coverage rule violated their religious beliefs. Many filed lawsuits or said they would simply not comply.

    Some of them wanted to make sure the administration followed through on its commitment to re-write the policy. A D.C. Court of Appeals decision recently ordered the administration to verify that it was revising the policy, as part of a lawsuit filed by two religious-affiliated colleges.

    But then in late December, Hobby Lobby was denied by the Supreme Court when it sought to shield itself from the mandate -- and the accompanying fines -- while court proceedings went forward.

    CEO David Green had argued that his family would have to either "violate their faith by covering abortion-causing drugs or be exposed to severe penalties." Hobby Lobby was most concerned about coverage for the morning-after pill, which some consider tantamount to an abortion-causing drug.

    Hobby Lobby has said the fines for not complying could add up to $1.3 million a day.

    Another lawsuit was brought by Ave Maria University in Florida. The school's president, Jim Towey, said Friday that the suit would stand "until we have heard where our country's Catholic bishops stand."

    Towey, in a statement, called the latest proposal a "provocation," and a "bizarre, new bureaucracy to obscure who exactly is paying for the abortion-inducing drugs and other services covered by the mandate."

    Another group that has been supportive of the administration in the past, Catholics United, praised the proposal Friday.

    "This is a victory not only for the Obama administration, but for the Catholic Church," director James Salt said.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.