Contraception policy is unfinished business

Talk of HHS' controversial mandate requiring employers to include contraceptive services in their employee health plans has quieted down, but HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius indicated Tuesday that the administration is continuing the conversation.

On Feb. 10, President Barack Obama announced the administration had made some changes to the mandate to accommodate religious organizations who object to the rule for religious purposes. In an e-mail later that week, an administration official said the administration will work with faith-based organizations, insurers and other parties to develop policies that respect religious liberty and ensure access to preventive services for women enrolled in self-insured group health plans sponsored by religious organizations.

“We've begun outreach,” Sebelius told Modern Healthcare after her remarks about essential health benefits at the National Forum on Health Care, an event hosted by the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network. “We're working with our partners at (the U.S. Labor Department) who run the self-insured plans to figure out a strategy and we intend to propose a rule in the near future—I do not have a precise date—on some implementation strategies that I think do exactly what the president says, which is make sure that women have preventive health services and respect religious freedom.”

By “proposed rule,” Sebelius said she was referring to an implementation rule for those religious employers that are not fully exempt from the already-in-place final rule. (Churches and church organizations, for example, are fully exempt.)

“For those religious employers who do not fall under that exemption, their implementation deadline is August 2013, so we have basically 18 months, but we intend to move well ahead of that deadline,” Sebelius said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.), a nurse and an attorney, contended Monday that the issue is not about women's health services, but about First Amendment rights. Buerkle offered remarks after a panel discussion about the issue at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank on Capitol Hill. At that discussion, panelist and attorney Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—a not-for-profit, public interest law firm—emphasized that the HHS rule is on the books.

“The employers –the religious organizations—are having to figure out now what they're going to do about these penalties and all the administration said is they might, in the future, make a new rule which would engage in some magic accounting and say it's not really the religious organizations who are paying for this,” Windham said. “The insurance companies would pay for it instead. I think we all know where the insurance companies are going to get that money.”

Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter @MHJZigmond.



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