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White House Expands Exemptions
From Contraception Mandate


BY DAVID GIBSON                                                                                      ©2013 Religion News Service

The Obama administration on February 1 sought to placate religious groups by broadening religious exemptions and giving faith-based organizations more room to maneuver around its controversial contraception mandate, but the new rules offer no loopholes for privately owned businesses.

The contraception mandate, part of Obama's health care overhaul, had set off an explosive church-state dispute and soured relations between the White House and some Christian groups, including the Catholic bishops' conference.

The new rules, issued by the Health and Human Services Department, seek to address religious freedom concerns in two ways: First, they broaden the definition of "religious employers" so that all houses of worship and dioceses and affiliated organizations will be clearly exempt. Second, for other faith-based employers, the rules would transfer the costs and administrative tasks of the birth control insurance policies to insurance companies.

When the rules were first issued in early 2012 religious leaders and religiously affiliated hospitals and universities, mainly operated by Catholics, objected that the definition of what constituted an exempt religious organization was far too narrow.

That original HHS definition said that in order to qualify as a religious employer who would not have to provide free contraception insurance an entity would have to be a nonprofit that had "the inculcation of religious values as its purpose" and primarily employed and served co-religionists.

Religious leaders noted that churches often employ people not of their faith and their social services welcome anyone, regardless of religious beliefs. As a result they said they feared that church-run soup kitchens as well as dioceses and religious schools could be subject to the birth control mandate.

The new proposals reflect those concerns by eliminating the original definition and using the standard definition of "religious employer" as found in the IRS tax code -- the solution that religious leaders were seeking.

The proposals issued Friday also try to clarify how other faith-based organizations that are not exempt could avoid directly providing contraceptive insurance coverage.

First, an organization -- a university or hospital, for example -- would have to be a nonprofit that considers itself a religious organization and would have to certify that it has a religious objection to providing contraception coverage.

If that organization has a health insurance company, then that insurance company would be responsible for automatically providing contraception coverage to the employee on its own without charging the organization or involving the organization administratively. The employee would also not have to pay for the insurance.

If the faith-based organization is self-insured -- a problem that was the focus of objections after the first round of proposals last year -- then the eligible organization would notify a third-party administrator to work with the health insurer to provide separate policies at no cost, according to the HHS.

"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," said the HHS.





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