WASHINGTON -- Faced with increasing pressure from religious groups and Catholic lawmakers in both parties over the new federal requirement for birth control coverage, the Obama administration announced on Friday an "accommodation" aimed at allaying some of the concerns of faith-driven employers.
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett told members of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus in a phone call on Friday morning that the new compromise requires the insurer -- rather than the employer -- to provide contraceptive coverage free of charge for women employed by the entities in question, a congressional staffer told HuffPost.
One idea that had been mentioned was the "Hawaii model," by which an employer who morally objects to contraception could opt out and inform its female employees where they can get coverage outside of the employee health plan. In Hawaii, women who decide to directly pay the insurer out of pocket for contraception coverage are not allowed to be charged more than they would pay for their company plan.
ABC News reported that President Barack Obama's compromise would not go as far as the Hawaii plan, but would involve a third-party health company helping to provide contraception coverage. It actually makes financial sense for insurance companies to cover birth control, ABC's Jake Tapper notes, because unwanted pregnancies and resulting complications cost more than contraception and sterilization.
Under the current rule, only churches and other houses of worship are exempt from having to cover contraception at no co-pay for the women they employ. Although the compromise does broaden the conscience clause to exempt any organization who opposes birth control based on religious beliefs, the Catholic bishops have already rejected the Hawaii model as a viable alternative because they don't even want women to be referred to places that would provide them with contraception.
"All the Founding Fathers saw that, and how far are we removed when we're sitting around talking about, well, maybe the Catholic church could make a referral to a service that it regards as intrinsically immoral," Bishop William Lori, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told the National Catholic Reporter. "We're pretty far way from the genius that inspired the founding of this country."
The Catholic bishops have called the new health coverage rule "an attack on religious freedom" and argue that all employers who object to contraception -- not just faith-based organizations -- should be exempt from having to provide it to their employees.
"That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, "not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers."
He added, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate."
Supporters of the provision say the only conscience that matters ought to be the conscience of the woman in question, whose option to have affordable contraception should not be dictated by the religious beliefs of her employer. Some of them feel that the religious exemption is already too broad, because women who work for churches in any capacity are excluded from the option of coverage.
"Birth control is basic health care and women should have access to birth control, no matter where they work," Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said on Thursday. "The Obama administration's birth control benefit already includes an expansive refusal exemption, allowing approximately 335,000 churches and houses of worship to refuse to provide birth control for their employees."
Pro-choice legislators were reacting cautiously to the news, waiting to see how broadly the White House defines who could assert the exemption. "If it's what it looks like, then this is good," said one Senate aide. "But if anyone can just say they're anti-abortion for religious reasons, then it's a giant carve-out."
Another Democratic aide fumed that the administration had botched the entire roll-out of the policy, even when it came to the call held Friday morning to inform lawmakers. An email went out at 9:25 a.m. announcing the briefing, but it was sent so hastily, the message didn't say when it would occur. Another note had to be sent at 9:27 a.m. to announce the call was at 9:30.
When Jarrett was done, she took no questions, further aggravating people, the aide said.
A majority of Americans said they support requiring health plans to include contraception coverage, according to a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, and 58 percent of Catholic respondents said the same.
But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), along with a number of GOP lawmakers and a handful of Catholic Democrats in Congress, have criticized Obama for the mandate. Boehner said in a floor speech on Wednesday that if Obama didn't reverse the rule, Congress would use legislation to do it.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on Wednesday that the president was not interested in backing down on the rule, but that he would "work with those who have concerns" to implement it in a way that pleases all parties.
UPDATE: 10:25 a.m. -- In a separate conference call that started at 9:45 a.m Friday, Jarrett briefed a large number of women's health groups about the administration's proposed changes to the so-called contraception rule.
Under the new language, Jarrett said, religious institutions would still be required to cover contraception as part of any health care plan they offer to their employees. But they also will be offered a veritable opt-out clause. If they determine that the requirement violates their religious sensibilities, the burden would then fall on the insurance company to cover the cost.
That insurance company would be required to inform the recipient of their benefits package in addition to paying for the contraception. This, explained Jarrett, effectively removes religious institutions from any role in the process, which the White House hopes will mute the criticism it has received. Insurers will be fine picking up the slack, she added, because the cost saved in covering contraception outweighs the expenses made in covering procedures that result from not having contraception available.
The contents of the call were relayed to The Huffington Post by someone who took part in it. The groups that participated included NARAL Pro-Choice America, Catholics for Life, NOW, and Health Care for America Now.
"Women's groups are okay with it if there is no change for the woman," the source said. "Some of the women's groups were concerned about the Hawaii plan. But women don't need to do anything proactively to opt in [to contraception coverage]. They have the same insurance companies that they would have anyway."
UPDATE: 11:20 a.m. -- Women's advocacy groups were generally pleased with the Obama administration's "accommodation" on Friday because it maintains birth control coverage with no co-pay for most women.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, praised the compromise, but warned that it would still not appease the policy's staunchest opponents.
"Today's announcement makes it clear that President Obama is firmly committed to protecting women’s health,” Keenan said. “Unfortunately, some opponents of contraception may not be satisfied. These groups and their allies in Congress want to take away contraceptive coverage from nurses, janitors, administrative staff, and college instructors -- and that agenda is out of touch with our country’s values and priorities. We will continue to fight on every front to support women’s access to birth control as politicians in Washington, D.C. try to take it away.”
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, reacted with a similar level of caution.
“We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth control benefits," she said. “However we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care."
A senior White House official told reporters on Friday that Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, also backed the decision. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not yet responded to the news.
UPDATE: 1:00 p.m. -- The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm that recently filed three lawsuits on behalf of Catholic institutions against the new contraception rules, has come out against the the administration's compromise.
"This is a false ‘compromise’ designed to protect the Presiden's re-election chances, not to protect the right of conscience," Hannah Smith, an attorney for the group, said in a statement. "Hundreds, if not thousands, of religious institutions are still left out in the cold and will be forced to violate their religious convictions."
The statement continued: "According to a White House statement, some religious employers will no longer be required to provide insurance coverage for contraception ... However, at least three problems remain. First, hundreds if not thousands of religious organizations self insure, meaning that they will still be forced to pay for these services in violation of their religious beliefs. Second, it is unclear which religious organizations are permitted to claim the new exemption, and whether it will extend to for-profit organizations, individuals, or non-denominational organizations. Third, money is fungible, and many religious organizations may still object to being forced to pay money to an insurance company which will turn around and provide contraception to its employees for free."
The law firm, which describes itself as "dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions," filed lawsuits after the Obama administration's January announcement about new contraception rules on behalf of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, Colorado Christian University and Eternal Word Television Network, a Catholic TV and radio station.
UPDATE: 2:30 p.m. -- The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the primary foes of the original contraception ruling, released the following statement:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sees initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom after President Obama's announcement today. But the Conference continues to express concerns. "While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them," said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB.
"The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals," he said.
"Today's decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction," Cardinal-designate Dolan said. "We hope to work with the Administration to guarantee that Americans' consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations."
Sam Stein, Michael McAuliff and Jaweed Kaleem contributed reporting.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misidentified the National Catholic Reporter as the National Catholic Register. The error has been corrected.