Obama administration announces new HHS mandate rules

Sylvia Burwell, Health and Human Service secretary for the Obama administration. Credit: HHS Department.

The Department of Health and Human Services issued on Friday new rules regarding its contraception mandate, after the Supreme Court ruled against its application to certain companies this summer.

The rules create a new way for non-profit groups to state their objections to the required coverage, prompting their insurance company to pay for their employees’ contraceptives. For closely held for-profit companies such as Hobby Lobby, the federal department said it is asking for ideas on how to extend the same accommodation being offered to non-profits.

Friday's news rules deal with the federal contraception mandate – issued under the 2010 Affordable Care Act – which requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.

The mandate has been met with controversy since its introduction, leading to more than 300 lawsuits from individuals and groups who say that it forces them to violate their religious beliefs.

For non-profits, the newly-issued rules “lay out an additional way for organizations eligible for an accommodation to provide notice of their religious objection to providing coverage for contraceptive services,” the Health and Human Services department stated Aug. 22.

Previously, religious groups were instructed to sign a form voicing their objection to the coverage, which would authorize their insurer or a third-party administrator to pay for the products.

Many religious groups had objected to this arrangement, saying that it still required them to violate their religious beliefs by authorizing an outside organization to pay for the products they found to be immoral.

The new rule announced Friday allows these non-profit groups to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of their objections. The federal government will then contact insurers and third party administrators to provide the coverage.

The non-profit rule goes into effect immediately, although it is an “interim final rule,” meaning that it is open to comments from the public and has not yet been finalized.

Regarding closely held for-profits, such as Hobby Lobby, HHS said it is asking for comments on how it might extend to them “the same accommodation that is available to non-profit religious organizations.”

“The proposal seeks comment on how to define a closely held for-profit company and whether other steps might be appropriate to implement this policy.”

Friday’s announcement is the latest in a series of revisions to the controversial mandate. While the mandate includes a narrow religious exemption for houses of worship and their affiliated organizations, many faith-based groups – such as soup kitchens, hospitals and schools – do not qualify for the exemption because they are not affiliated with a specific house of worship.

Instead, objecting non-profit organizations have been offered an “accommodation,” under which they can sign a form prompting their insurer or a third-party administrator to provide payments for the products they find immoral.

Religious individuals running for-profit companies did not qualify for the exemption nor the accommodation.

In June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the mandate as it applied to two “closely held” for-profit corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Services. The court found that the owners of the companies are protected from the demands of the mandate by the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It ruled that the federal government had failed to prove that the mandate was the least restrictive means of advancing its goal of providing free birth control to women.

The Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that the new rules “are in response to recent court decisions.”

Sylvia Burwell, HHS secretary, said that the new rules will ensure access to free contraception, “while respecting religious considerations raised by non-profit organizations and closely held for-profit companies.”

 


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