WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration said Friday that it will limit an Obama-era rule that employers must provide women with contraceptives as part of their health plans, giving a broad exemption for executives or owners who have religious or moral objections to doing so.
The Obama administration treated birth control as preventive care that must be covered by health insurance and gave female employees access to the full range of contraceptives at no cost.
That rule has been under constant attack from conservative religious groups even though it exempted churches and houses of worship. The Obama administration also gave a partial exemption to religious nonprofit groups, including schools and charities, so they did not have to directly pay for the contraceptives. Instead, their insurers paid for the coverage.
The Supreme Court in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case extended the exemption to those corporate employers who said they had a sincere religious objection to certain forms of birth control. The decision rested on the federal law that protects religious freedom, but the court's majority opinion assumed female employees would still receive contraceptive coverage through an insurer.
Government lawyers argued in that case that providing free contraceptives saved insurers money over the long term because it reduced costs associated with pregnancies.
But objections continued from religious-liberty advocates who argued that faith-based employers would be "complicit in sin" if their insurance policies paid for "morning after" pills and certain other contraceptives that they believe are a form of abortion.
In early May, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling on then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to revise the contraceptive regulation "to address conscience-based objections."
A few weeks later, the department issued a lengthy draft that proposed to shield employers if they "have religious beliefs or moral convictions objecting to coverage of all or a subset of contraceptives or sterilization." Moreover, these employers would not be required to assure that their insurers would still provide the coverage.
"This would be a huge change. It would leave countless women without the coverage they need," said Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center. "We are exploring a number of potential legal challenges."
The contraceptive mandate has broad popular support, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. It cited a 2015 poll that found respondents said, by 71 percent to 25 percent, that they supported requiring health insurance plans "to cover the full cost of birth control."
A change in the federal rules may have less impact in states including California, Illinois and Maryland, which all recently strengthened their laws requiring health insurers to cover the cost of contraceptives.
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