The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today announced two proposed changes to its mandate that companies offer health insurance that includes coverage of contraceptives. The changes largely remove controversial language that narrowly defined religious organizations.
But the controversy over the mandate is likely to continue, since the new exemptions don't apply to for-profit companies that object to contraception coverage on religious grounds, or to nonprofits that aren't explicitly religious.
"The government has taken the first step to reveal its plan, and its plan is to pick and choose who's allowed to exercise faith and to limit full religious freedom," said Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom.
In the first proposed change, churches and their directly related groups (like denominations, church associations, and religious orders) are fully exempt from having to provide contraceptive coverage if they have religious objections.
In theory, churches had been exempt earlier, but the HHS's definition of religious employers was narrow: It only included those that "have the inculcation of religious values as [their] purpose" and that primarily served and employed people who share the group's religious beliefs. Today's new rules eliminate that controversial language and simply default to IRS definitions of a church.
"A house of worship would not be excluded from the exemption because, for example, it provides charitable social services to persons of different religious faiths or employs persons of different religious faiths," a statement from the HHS said.
A second change, regarding religious nonprofits, is similar to a change President Barack Obama administration had announced a year ago. Such groups will not have to "contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds." But employees covered by the organizations' healthcare plans would still receive separate contraceptive coverage through whatever health insurance company the employer uses.
After Obama announced that compromise last February, critics complained that it was a "slight of hand word game," and that premiums were likely to rise since the insurance companies would still have to provide contraceptive coverage. Objectors would be paying for the contraceptive coverage one way or another, they complained.
The HHS today said it would require health insurance companies to certify to religious objectors that the contraceptive coverage was not included in their policy, premium, or any other fees or charges. Insurance companies will save money on "improvements in women's health and fewer childbirths" anyway, the HHS said.
For self-insured religious groups that object to contraception coverage, the burden shifts to the heath-care administrators of their plans. The organization simply has to certify its objection, and the administrator has to find a health insurance company to offer separate individual policies to cover contraceptives.
"The costs of both the health insurance issuer and third party administrator would be offset by adjustments in federally facilitated exchange user fees that insurers pay," the HHS said. (In December, the HHS announced it would charge insurance companies 3.5 percent of the premiums for policies they sell through federal insurance exchanges.)
But according to a press statement, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said these "minor modifications" are "a distinction without a difference, a work-around that doesn't work."