President Obama announced changes to a rule that would have required some religious institutions to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees on Friday in a bow to complaints from religious groups and conservative Republicans.
Obama announced a rule that would require insurers who provide coverage to religiously-affiliated employers to notify employees of the contraceptive services for which they're eligible for free coverage.
It's a revision to a previous proposal that would have given groups like Catholic charities and hospitals a year to add contraceptive services to their health care plans; administration officials say they would have spent the interim period consulting with groups on ways to balance their religious concerns with the new requirement.
But today, Obama acknowledged that a chorus of critical Catholic bishops and other faith leaders, as well as criticism from lawmakers and candidates, compelled him to speed up the timeline and announce a final rule today.
“After the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option,” he said, addressing reporters in the White House briefing room today.
“So last week, I directed the Department of Health and Human Services to speed up the process that had already been envisioned,” Obama continued, as that department’s secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, stood next to him. “We weren't going to spend a year doing this; we're going to spend a week or two doing this.”
“Women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women, and they'll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars a year that could go towards paying the rent or buying groceries,” Obama said.
Exemptions from this rule for religious institutions where most employees are of the same faith, like churches, remain intact.
The White House contends that insurance companies will agree to cover such costs because preventive services reduce the likelihood of more expensive medical care like cancer treatment and unexpected pre and post-natal care.
While Obama said today the new rule preserves the “principle of religious liberty," his announcement immediately elicited a new round of outcry from detractors on the campaign trail, in Congress and beyond.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, speaking today at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual gathering in Washington, told a room full of activists that if elected, he would “reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), a chief sponsor of a bill that would overturn the whole mandate, called the announcement “an accounting gimmick.”
“Just because you can come up with an accounting gimmick and pretend like religious institutions do not have to pay for the mandate, does not mean that you've satisfied the fundamental constitutional freedoms that all Americans are guaranteed,” he said in a written statement.
And while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he thought it was “good that the President reaffirmed that the Federal government cannot force faith-based institutions to provide services that they teach are wrong,” he said measures like this demonstrate that “our Constitutional rights will continue to be threatened by the Administration’s policy goals.”
Religious organizations also sounded off, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a self-described legal and educational institute that “protects the free expression of all faith” and has so far filed three lawsuits in federal courts against the rule. The group noted that some religious organizations may object to having to pay an insurance company which “which will turn around and provide contraception to its employees for free.”
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a vocal opponent of the mandate, said that the change to the rule was “a first step in the right direction” but said that his group reserved “judgment on the details until we have seen them.”
But the new plan did seem to mollify some Democrats who had previously objected to the plan. Virginia Senate candidate Tim Kaine, the former governor of that state, said he was “pleased that the White House has taken further steps to ensure that all women have access to affordable contraception and to ensure that religious organizations will not be asked to violate their beliefs in the process.”
Kaine had a harsher tone on Tuesday, before the change was announced, saying the White House “made a bad decision in not allowing a broad enough religious-employer exemption.”
And Rep. John Larson (D-CT), who wrote a letter to Sebelius last week saying HHS needed to “re-engage in a dialogue with the religious community on this matter,” today praised the administration’s shift.
"In this politically charged environment, it is heartening to see that we can come together to find a path forward that protects the health needs of women while recognizing the conscience concerns of religious institutions,” Larson said in a statement.
NBC's Shawna Thomas, Libby Leist and Pete Williams contributed to this report.