WASHINGTON – The Obama administration issued a final rule Friday requiring many employers and health insurance plans to provide free coverage of contraceptives for women, a policy that has touched off a furious legal and political battle likely to rage for another year.
The rule adopts a simplified version of an approach proposed by the government in February to balance the interests of women with the concerns of the Roman Catholic Church and other employers with religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptives.
After considering more than 400,000 comments, administration officials refused to budge. The final rule, they said, is very similar to the proposal that figured prominently into last year's elections.
Democrats describe the mandate for coverage of birth control as one of the chief benefits of the 2010 health care law.
"The health care law guarantees millions of women access to recommended preventive services at no cost," said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services. "Today's announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work."
Republicans say the requirement shows how intrusive and onerous the law is.
Eric C. Rassbach, a deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented plaintiffs challenging the law, said the final rule did nothing to meet the objections of his clients. "So there is a fundamental conflict that will have to be resolved in court," he said.
Under provisions of the new health care law that take effect in January, employers with more than 50 workers will generally be required to offer health insurance to employees or they will be subject to financial penalties.
Among the "essential health benefits" that must be provided are preventive services. In particular, the administration says, most health plans must cover sterilization and the full range of contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Under the rule issued Friday, the government said certain "religious employers" – primarily houses of worship – may exclude contraceptive coverage from their health plans for employees and their dependents.
The rule also lays out what the administration describes as an accommodation for other nonprofit religious and church-affiliated organizations that object to contraceptive coverage: They will not have to contract, arrange or pay for contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.
Instead, the administration said, such coverage will be "separately provided to women enrolled in their health plans at no cost."