The White House last week defended its decision on a religious exemption to new contraceptive coverage rules and said it would not yield to pressure to broaden the exemption.
White House officials arranged a conference call to discuss what they called "confusion" over the policy, which implements a provision in the federal health reform law that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles.
The policy exempts certain religious employers, such as houses of worship, from providing contraceptive coverage; Catholic hospitals, schools, and other organizations had pressured HHS to expand the exemption to cover them, too. HHS announced on Jan. 20 that it would not expand the exemption but would give religiously affiliated employers an extra year to comply, meaning they will have until Aug. 1, 2013, to begin providing the coverage.
Administration officials on Thursday stressed that they are not reconsidering the decision, noting that they "aren't here to make any new policy announcements or any changes." They reiterated that the decision "strikes the appropriate balance" between religious freedom and women's access to preventive services.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is willing to work with the affected religious organizations to help them implement the new policy. He also noted that the decision was not influenced by the potential impact on the November presidential election. The religious exemption is consistent with laws in 28 states that require contraceptive coverage, he said.
The White House further clarified its position in a blog post by Cecilia Munoz, director of the House Domestic Policy Council. Munoz wrote that the new rule would not force individual health care providers to prescribe birth control, nor would it force women to buy or use it. She also said that the policy would not cover drugs that cause abortion.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Friday said the group would "pursue every legal mandate available to them to bring an end to this mandate. That means legislation, litigation and public advocacy. All options are on the table" (Alonso-Zaldivar, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/2; Jackson, USA Today, 2/2; Radnofsky, "Washington Wire," Wall Street Journal, 2/2; Condon, National Journal, 2/2 [subscription required]; Landsberg, Los Angeles Times, 2/4).