HHS Mandate Revisions Draw Opposition From Faith-Based Groups

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On Friday, the Obama administration offered a new option for faith-based charities and health care institutions to avoid the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring them to cover contraceptives.

Issued in January 2012, the HHS mandate — 0ne of the more controversial elements of the Affordable Care Act — required all private employers to offer health insurance plans that covered all contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Since some of these methods included the “Morning-After Pill,” it was questioned whether covering contraceptives also meant covering abortion-inducing drugs.

A February 2012 exemption was introduced that exempted churches, but not church-affiliated institutions such as Catholic hospitals. The new motion extends from churches to the previously-excluded faith-based institutions.

The exemption would allow employers to offer stand-alone, private insurance policies that would provide contraceptives at zero cost by paying insurance premiums to a third party insurer. However, as with its earlier attempt, the HHS mandate revisions have garnered opposition from faith-based groups and religious institutions.

Opponents argue that the new proposal is an “accounting gimmick,” suggesting that the objectionable coverage will still, in the end, be paid with their money.

Matt Bowman, Senior Legal Counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the Christian organizations that has been fighting the HHS mandate, said of the new exemption:

“The administration’s narrow gesture does nothing to protect many faith-based employers or religious families from the unconstitutional abortion pill mandate. The government has no business putting religious freedom on the negotiating table, or picking and choosing who is allowed to exercise faith.”

Other groups, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are waiting to study the exemption further before issuing an official judgment. The University of Notre Dame has also not commented.

On the other side of the debate, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, two of the largest abortion-rights supporters in the U.S, support the exemption. NARAL’s president, Ilyse Hogue, said:

“Today’s draft regulation affirms yet again the Obama administration’s commitment to fulfilling the full promise of its historic contraception policy.”

The new motion is an attempt to find middle ground on the religious freedom issue. However, businesses such as Hobby Lobby, which are secular and whose ownership objects to covering contraceptives on religious grounds, face a difficult predicament; namely, still being forced to subsidize contraceptives and other medicines and procedures it finds objectionable. Hobby Lobby is not a faith-based institution or church, but it has the same objections as those that are.

The newly-proposed exemption is undergoing a 60-day comment period so the exemption can still receive more revision. However, the ongoing battle over the HHS mandate is another sign that, in the culture wars and the struggle for health care reform, there are few easy fixes.