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Contraceptive exemptions issued for religious groups

The Obama administration on Friday released its final rule determining contraceptive coverage under the federal health care law; religious organizations can gain an exemption from this coverage, but their employees will still get coverage for birth control with no cost-sharing due to some creative loopholes.

“These employers, primarily houses of worship, may exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans for their employees and their dependents,” states a press release from the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Other non-profit religious organizations -- such as Catholic hospitals, high schools, and universities -- also won’t have to pay for coverage for which they object to on religious grounds.

Insurance companies, though, will still be expected to provide the coverage at no cost to enrollees. The rule allows for them to get a rebate from the federal government to offset the cost of covering birth control pills, intrauterine devices, and hormonal shots with no copayment.

Religously-affliated employers aren’t required to let their employees know that such coverage is available.

“Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

Reproductive rights groups cheered the final regulation.

“This means that women will have access to birth control at no cost, no matter where they work,” Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America said in a statement. “Birth control is basic health care for women, and this policy treats it like any other kind of preventive care.”

Not everyone is happy of course. Religious groups who have challenged the contraceptive coverage plans in court were disappointed with the coverage requirements. “Unfortunately the final rule announced today is the same old, same old,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement. The nonprofit legal group has filed several lawsuits challenging the mandate.

“As we said when the proposed rule was issued,” Rassbach added, “this doesn’t solve the religious conscience problem because it still makes our non-profit clients the gatekeepers to abortion and provides no protection to religious businesses.”

A group representing secular organizations expressed their dismay at the final rule for a different reason. “This disappointing rule change sets a terrible precedent for religious interference in individual choice,” Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America said in a statement. “This exemption gives employers the ability to impose their particular religious beliefs on employees, infringing on the religious freedom of potentially millions of Americans.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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