In hopes of resolving the difficult debate concerning faith-based employers and contraception coverage, the Obama administration has offered yet another sensible adjustment to the Affordable Care Act. The new approach would provide widespread access to birth control without forcing religious groups to pay for it.
President Obama and his Department of Health and Human Services have made their policy position clear. Women should be able to get prescription contraceptives through their health insurance plans, regardless of their employer's beliefs about birth control (churches and other entities directly engaged in teaching a faith are exempt). Yet the administration also has demonstrated a willingness to find alternative means to finance birth-control coverage.
About a year ago, the administration offered its first compromise for faith-based nonprofits. That accommodation released nonprofit employers with religious objections from paying for contraceptive coverage directly. Instead, the insurance companies with which they contracted would have been required to pick up the cost.
But some employers have remained concerned that their premiums will be used to finance care that violates their beliefs, and over the last year dozens of lawsuits citing religious freedom have been filed over the contraceptive mandate.
Trying again, the administration further modified the rules last week. Under the new regulations, a self-insured employer could advise the insurance company that administers its health plan that it chooses to opt out of birth-control coverage. The third-party administrator would then arrange "separate individual health insurance policies for contraceptive coverage from an issuer providing such policies."
Health insurance companies that create such plans would receive an incentive from the federal government: lower fees to sell plans on the new health exchange run by the administration.
The change is a sensible compromise, putting real daylight between faith-based employers and the financing of contraceptive care. But the new rules aren't likely to satisfy everyone. Last year, several bills introduced in Congress would have allowed an employer's religious beliefs to determine medical procedures or medications covered by employees' health plans. In the Republican-controlled House, one of those bills had more than half of House members as cosponsors.
A similar measure was wisely (but narrowly) voted down by the Senate. And last summer, North Dakota voters rejected an effort to amend the state's constitution to protect a wide array of discriminatory practices justified on religious grounds. But the debate isn't over. Organizations that oppose the contraceptive mandate have vowed to keep pressing for restrictions.
Americans should not be fooled. The mandate is not intended to trample religious freedom, but rather to allow women to make their own birth-control choices. No one should be denied reproductive care because of an employer's religious or moral concerns.
Some employers would like to impose restrictions because there are financial advantages to limiting coverage. Removing access to contraception could be a first step toward ending coverage of other medical procedures that company owners or executives object to based on moral, religious or even political beliefs.
The Obama administration has offered a good compromise that strikes the proper balance between health, equity and religious objections.