Catholic bishops said Friday night that they would not support the Obama administration’s proposed compromise on a controversial rule that requires most employers to fully cover contraception in their workers’ health plans.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had led opposition to the regulation, issued a statement saying that they didn’t believe their concerns were addressed by a new policy offered by President Barack Obama on Friday morning to allow religious employers who object to the use of birth control to turn over responsibility for covering it to insurance companies.
Under the new policy, religious employers that don’t want to offer contraception could exclude it from their policies. Insurance companies instead would be required to provide access to contraception for plan participants who wanted it, without explicitly charging either the religious employer or worker.
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The shift is intended to ensure that women working at religious hospitals, schools and charities who want to use contraception can obtain it in the same way as women who work for secular employers. It also means the cost of providing the coverage for those women is likely to be spread across all policyholders by insurers.
The bishops had earlier expressed cautious optimism about the announcement, saying that it was “a first step in the right direction” but that they would have to study it.
In their later statement, they said they still had “serious moral concerns,” noting that the proposal didn’t contain provisions for religious employers who self-insure, meaning the employer takes on the underlying risk of covering employees’ health care.
The bishops also said that the current structure of the proposal meant that if an employee and insurer agreed to add contraception coverage to a health plan, it would still be financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the employer.
“These changes require careful moral analysis, and moreover, appear subject to some measure of change. But we note at the outset that the lack of clear protection… is unacceptable and must be corrected,” the statement said.
The White House declined to comment.
Under the health-care law passed in March 2010, insurers must cover preventive care at no out-of-pocket cost for consumers. The Institute of Medicine recommended that all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration be included on the list of covered services.
The bishops also said that they were unlikely to be satisfied by changes that affected only religious employers, since they still had “grave” objections to the overall mandate, which includes the morning-after pill and sterilization.
The later statement came after leading members of the conference reviewed the proposal, among them president Archbishop Timothy Dolan and the two men who chair its committees on doctrine and what the church calls “pro-life activities,” the cardinals Donald Wuerl and Daniel DiNardo. Archbishop Dolan will be elevated to the rank of cardinal next week.
President Obama telephoned the archbishop to tell him of the announcement Friday morning. The bishops said they hadn’t been previously consulted about the proposal.
“We note that today’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions….The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is… to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services,” they wrote.
It isn’t clear what effect the bishops’ objections will have on the Catholic community, which had already been divided in its initial response to the proposal, and to the health-care law as a whole.
Several Catholic organizations praised the administration compromise after it was announced, including the hospitals group the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA.