February 7th, 2013
03:34 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops does not support the Obama administration’s revised proposal for providing insurance coverage for contraception, saying it falls short of addressing concerns about religious freedom.
In a response to the policy update announced last week by the Department of Health and Human Services, the church leaders said the policy offers “second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education and Catholic charities.”
“Because the stakes are so high, we will not cease from our effort to assure that healthcare for all does not mean freedom for few,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the conference, said in a statement. “We will continue to stand united with brother bishops, religious institutions, and individual citizens who seek redress in the courts for as long as this is necessary.”
Although the bishops identified the changes as a step in the right direction, they made it clear that they were not satisfied.
The proposed guidelines would allow religious-affiliated organizations opposing contraception to opt out of a federal mandate requiring that they provide their employees with insurance coverage for birth control.
The policy would give women at non-profit, religious-based organizations, like certain hospitals and universities, the ability to receive contraception through separate health policies at no charge.
Following an uproar among religious institutions that didn't want to pay for contraceptives, the administration in March offered several compromise alternatives. The plan unveiled on Friday was a result of that effort.
The proposed update continued the administration's attempts to resolve the contentious issue of how non-profit organizations can decline to provide contraception coverage to their employees on religious grounds without facing a penalty.
An original mandate on providing contraception was part of the new federal healthcare law spearheaded by Obama, the Affordable Care Act. It required that insurers provide, at no cost to those insured, all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
A number of high profile lawsuits have been filed against the federal government on the issue, including from the craft store giant Hobby Lobby.
A group of 43 Catholic organizations challenged the rules in federal court in May.
In Thursday’s announcement, Dolan also said the change in policy showed a “disregard of the conscience rights of for-profit business owners.”
As part of the new initiative, groups that are insured - such as student health plans at religious colleges - would be required to let their insurer know that certain participants would like contraception coverage.
“The insurer would then notify enrollees that it is providing them with no-cost contraceptive coverage through separate individual health insurance policies,” the HHS statement on the policy said.
Although the agency has not estimated final costs of the plan, it said that offering free coverage would actually lower expenses over the long term, partly due to improvement in women's health and fewer childbirths.
Because the insurer would be covering the costs, the administration hoped the changes would allow religious organizations morally opposed to contraception to avoid paying for it.
The updated rules proposal will be open for public comment through April 8. The administration would then decide whether to make it final.
The Catholic Bishops indicated in their statement that they look forward to working with the administration on the final policy.
“We welcome and will take seriously the administration’s invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all,” Dolan said.
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