Posted by Kathryn Mayer on

The Obama administration isn’t backing off its position that employers must include free contraceptive coverage in workers’ insurance plans as part of the nation’s health care reforms, though it did give churches some wiggle room Friday.

Under pressure from religious groups, the administration issued final rules on the birth control mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that included a compromise allowing faith-based nonprofits and corporations to offer contraceptives through special third-party policies, without having to manage or pay for the services directly.

The mandate requires most other employers to cover a range of birth-control methods in their health plans without charging a co-pay or a deductible.

Under the final rules, religious nonprofits may notify their carrier that they object to birth control coverage. The carrier then notifies affected employees separately that it will provide coverage at no cost.

Religious groups have strongly opposed the rule, and dozens of lawsuits against the federal government have been filed. But the administration — supported by women’s rights advocates — has largely stuck to its original position in favor of a contraception mandate, saying it gives women control over their health care.

Though the final rule aims to appease religious groups by setting up a system for insurers to provide the coverage separately, it’s doubtful that lawsuits over the issue will stop. On Thursday, a federal appeals court ruled that Hobby Lobby could challenge PPACA on faith grounds, giving more hope to opponents of the law’s mandate.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented plaintiffs in some of court challenges, said the rule would not satisfy the opposition.

But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius insisted Friday the final rules “strike the appropriate balance” between respecting those religious considerations and increasing access to important preventive services for women.

“The health care law guarantees millions of women access to recommended preventive services at no cost,” Sebelius said in a statement.

“Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work.”

The final rule offers a simpler definition of “religious employer” for purposes of the exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement in response to concerns raised by some religious organizations.

These employers, primarily churches, may exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans for their employees and their dependents.

Women at nonprofit, religious-based organizations — such as at certain hospitals and universities — will have the ability to receive contraception through the separate health policies at no cost.

Announced early last year, the original mandate required most employers, including religious-affiliated organizations, to cover a range of birth control methods.

That triggered intense pushback from Catholics and other religious groups that oppose birth control, and who called the mandate an attack on their religious freedom.

On the other hand, proponents of the mandate argue that the requirement is a “win” for women, and will help reduce unplanned pregancies and abortions.

“The magic combination of responsible public and private policies and responsible behavior on the part of men and women can make all the difference in helping reduce unplanned pregnancy and improving the education and employment prospects of women and their families,” Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said last year.

The Catholic Church has yet to respond to the final rules.