Democrats Urge Obama to Protect Contraceptive Coverage in Health Plans
By ROBERT PEAR
Published: November 19, 2011
WASHINGTON — A dispute has erupted between President Obama and Democrats in Congress over a proposal to broaden the exemption from new rules that require health insurance plans to cover contraceptives for women free of charge.
But after protests by Roman Catholic bishops, charities, schools and universities, the White House is considering a change that would grant a broad exemption to health plans sponsored by employers who object to such coverage for moral and religious reasons.
Churches may already qualify for an exemption. The proposal being weighed by the White House would expand the exemption to many universities, hospitals, clinics and other entities associated with religious organizations.
The prospect of such a change has infuriated many Democrats in Congress, who fought hard to secure coverage of birth control under the new health care law. Senators voiced their objections on Thursday in a telephone conference call with Pete Rouse, counselor to the president. House members registered their objections on Friday in a call with Valerie Jarrett, another member of the president’s inner circle.
House members have sent a letter to Mr. Obama urging him not to widen the exemption. Such a change, they said, would keep contraception out of reach for millions of women.
Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, said the broad exemption was “an outrageous idea.”
“Millions of women work for colleges, hospitals and health care systems that are nominally religious, but these folks use birth control and need coverage,” said Ms. DeGette, a leader of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
The 2010 health care law says insurers must cover “preventive health services” and cannot charge for them. On Aug. 1, Ms. Sebelius issued rules that require health plans to cover contraceptive drugs and devices and sterilization procedures, among other services.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said: “There is not a scintilla of legislative direction in the statute that requires the broadened exemption the administration is contemplating. This change would be a reversal of the progress made in favor of reproductive rights when President Obama took office.”
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, said: “It just doesn’t make sense to take this benefit away from millions of women. Americans of all religious faiths overwhelmingly support broad access to birth control.”
The rules already include an exemption for certain “religious employers,” but the exemption is so narrow that some church groups say it is almost meaningless. A religious employer cannot qualify for the exemption if it employs or serves large numbers of people of a different faith, as many Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies do.
When the administration announced the requirement for contraceptive coverage, it said the decision was “based on science.” The resulting uproar has forced Mr. Obama to weigh competing claims of Catholic leaders and advocates for women’s rights, including some of his strongest supporters.
The insurance mandate came up when Mr. Obama met this month at the White House with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Dolan said Mr. Obama was “very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community.”
A Senate Democrat who participated in the phone call with the White House said: “This is a pro-choice president. It’s a surprise that we are even having this debate with the administration.”
Several lawmakers said administration officials had left them with the impression that the president was leaning toward a broader exemption.
But the White House said Mr. Obama had not made a final decision and would listen to all points of view at a meeting of administration officials soon after he returns on Sunday from his trip to Asia. In the past month, leaders of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and other family planning advocates have met with Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, William M. Daley, and other White House officials to oppose any broader exemption.
The issue resonates at the local level, as Catholic priests around the country have urged parishioners to tell federal officials why they object to the new mandate.
In a letter to the administration, the bishops’ conference said the requirement for coverage of contraceptives and sterilization was “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty.”
Under the government’s narrow criteria, the bishops said, “even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists.” Moreover, the bishops said, “the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences.”
In comments filed with the Obama administration, some Catholic groups said the exemption for religious employers should be broadened to include any nonprofit tax-exempt organization that is controlled by or associated with a church or religious order.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said the exemption, as now written, “falls far short of securing the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment.”