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Final rule issued on birth-control access for faith-based employers

The Obama administration on Friday offered its final compromise for faith-based groups that object to covering birth control in their employee health plans, even as the issue faces new legal challenges.

The final rule does not differ greatly from a proposed version issued earlier this year that sought to offer a way for women to get the coverage without forcing religiously affiliated organizations to pay for it. Under the rule, insurance companies would provide the coverage free of charge through separate, individual health insurance policies from their employers' insurers or third-party administrators.

“Today’s announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work," Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

The rule, which goes into effect Aug. 1, follows months of protest and legal action from groups representing Roman Catholics, Protestant evangelicals and private employers who claim that the 2010 Affordable Care Act forces them to violate religious beliefs that bar contraception.

Administration officials said that under the rule, organizations will not have to "contract, arrange, pay for or refer contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds, but such coverage is separately provided to women enrolled in their health plans at no cost."

The 2010 Affordable Care Act requires all health insurers to pay for a woman’s contraceptive care without charging her anything. Religious organizations such as the Catholic Church, which oppose artificial birth control, have objected strongly. While churches and other overtly religious organizations were always exempted, things were less clear for religiously affiliated organizations, such as universities, and private employers who said they had their own personal conscientious objections.

More than 60 lawsuits have challenged the original regulation, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which led the charge against what they claim is an unconstitutional mandate. The new rule comes a day after a federal appellate court in Denver ruled that one employer, arts and crafts chain Hobby Lobby, may be exempt from the requirement that Obama has insisted be made available for all employees with health insurance, particularly women, whose contraceptive options can be expensive.

Under the compromise, religious nonprofits must notify their insurance companies that they object to birth control coverage. The insurer will then notify the affected employees individually that it will provide coverage at no cost.

Women's rights groups said the final rule achieves the broad goal of ensuring access to birth control.

"In general, they are upholding the principal of the Affordable Care Act that almost all women will get the contraception that they need and the employers won't be able to impose their religious views on the employees," said Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproduction for the National Women's Law Center.