WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama attempted to quell a political firestorm over health care and religion Friday, saying he would still assure that every woman in America gets free contraception but agreeing that religious institutions will not be forced to provide it. Instead, insurers will.
His order brought cheers from supporters who called the guarantee of free contraception a bedrock health issue for women.
But it did not immediately satisfy critics, including Republicans, some moderate Democrats and Roman Catholic bishops, who stressed that they need to see the final plan to make sure that Catholic institutions are not forced to provide health insurance that covers practices the church preaches against.
“The devil, as they say, is in the details,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
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Under fire from the bishops and others, Obama said he was changing the policy that was announced by his administration last month as part of implementing the 2010 health care law.
As initially written, it would have required all insurance plans nationwide to cover preventive health care for women with no co-payments, including such services as mammograms as well as contraception. It exempted churches from having to provide coverage they oppose, but it would not have exempted other Catholic institutions, such as hospitals. Opponents said that was government overreaching that threatened freedom of religion, and Obama yielded Friday.
Obama still defended the broad mandate as common sense and a long-term money saver.
“In addition to family planning, doctors often prescribe contraception as a way to reduce the risks of ovarian and other cancers, and treat a variety of different ailments,” he said. “And we know that the overall cost of health care is lower when women have access to contraceptive services.”
But he said he would tweak the policy to preserve religious liberty. Rather than requiring religious organizations to provide the insurance, a power granted by the health care law, he said he’d order insurance companies to provide supplemental coverage for contraception, at no cost to the religious organization or the woman.
“Religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly,” he said.
Groups such as Planned Parenthood praised the revised order for preserving free access to contraception for all women, including those who work for Catholic institutions.
“Those institutions who serve the broad public, employ the broad public and receive taxpayer dollars should be required to follow the same rules as everyone else, including providing birth control coverage and information,” said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Birth control is basic health care and is fundamental to improving women’s health and the health of their families.”
The Catholic Health Association, which represents health facilities employing 750,000 people, also lauded the decision.
“We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated,” said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the group.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said it needs to see the final policy.
“While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the president of the conference.
One critical detail is how the government will make insurance companies pay for coverage of contraception without any of the costs being passed on to the religious organizations.
In Miami, for example, Wenski noted that the archdiocese self-insures, as many large businesses and institutions do, then hires a health care plan to manage its insurance.
"Are they going to charge us for that stuff?" he said. "If we're paying for it, the issue hasn't been resolved. The bishops still have the same fundamental problems with this."
Southern Baptists also complained that their self-insurance system, covering 200,000 pastors, church workers, professors, secretaries, social workers and missionaries, could be forced to cover services they oppose on religious grounds.
“This self-funded approach to health care coverage, common in the faith community, was completely ignored by the president in his statement today,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“The president’s statement today is an insulting affront illustrating a basic lack of understanding that this issue will not be solved by sleight-of-hand word games,” said O.S. Hawkins, president of the Southern Baptist self-insurance program.
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