NEW YORK — In a split with U.S. bishops, a trade group for Catholic hospitals said Tuesday it can accept the Obama's administration latest compromise on birth control coverage by religious employers.
"We are pleased that our members now have an accommodation that will not require them to contract, provide, pay or refer for contraceptive coverage," said the Catholic Health Association.
Under President Barack Obama's health care law, most employers are required to cover birth control as a free preventive service for women workers. Churches and other houses of worship are fully exempt from the mandate. But religiously-affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups are not.
The compromise, in a final regulation from the administration, attempts to create a buffer for these employers. It requires insurers or the health plan's outside administrator to pay for birth control coverage, and creates a mechanism for reimbursing them.
However, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops are suing to overturn the entire requirement, saying it trespasses on freedom of religion.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops, said the hospital association had notified the bishops' conference about its stand late Monday.
Walsh said the bishops "did not contribute to the (group's) analysis or the statement itself." Catholic dioceses, charities and universities are among the plaintiffs in more than 60 lawsuits challenging the rule. The cases are expected to reach the Supreme Court.
The regulation has become another contentious issue in the health care overhaul Obama signed into law in 2010.
The Catholic hospitals' group, led by Sister Carol Keehan, joined other prominent Catholics in defying the bishops to support passage of the health law at a critical stage of the congressional debate.
More recently, the group had joined the bishops and leaders of other faiths in pressing the Department of Health and Human Services for a broader religious exemption from birth control coverage.
The birth control coverage requirement was widely praised by women's groups, and supported by medical societies as good for both mothers and children.
The administration's original birth control rule, introduced early last year, exempted churches and other houses of worship. However, faith-affiliated charities, universities and other nonprofits were required to comply.
After a public outcry, the Obama administration floated a series of compromises that resulted in a final accommodation June 28.
The latest version of the regulation attempts to create a buffer between the faith-affiliated charities and contraceptive coverage by requiring insurers or another third-party to provide contraceptive coverage instead of the religious employer.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops' conference, said in a statement last week that the bishops were still studying the regulation, adding that it does not appear to address all their concerns about religious freedom. The bishops have also sought a religious exemption for owners of for-profit businesses.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents Protestant churches across the country, announced Monday it also rejects the compromise.
The Catholic Church prohibits the use of artificial contraception. Evangelicals generally accept the use of birth control, but some object to specific methods such as the morning-after contraceptive pill, which they argue is tantamount to abortion, and is covered under the policy.
The hospital trade group's decision was first reported by the National Catholic Reporter.