The Obama administration has released new regulations that help clarify which religious groups and organizations can opt out of providing birth control, as required under the Affordable Care Act, exempting most religiously affiliated groups from the requirement while ensuring that women will continue to receive birth control at no cost.
The law specifies that employers and insurers must provide a wide array of women’s health benefits, including contraception without additional co-pays. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement. Nonprofit religiously affiliated organizations can also refuse to offer birth control coverage, though their employees may obtain contraception coverage that is part of their insurance plans directly from the insurer without additional cost to them or the companies.
The new rules make small changes to this agreement.
First, the federal government will apply the Internal Revenue Services’ definition for religious organization, which is slightly broader than how the term had been defined. Here is a comparison:
|NEW DEFINITION||OLD DEFINITION|
|holds itself out as a religious organization||the inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the organization.|
|is organized and operates as a nonprofit entity||the organization is a nonprofit organization|
|opposes providing coverage for some or all of any contraceptive services required on account of religious objections||the organization employs and serves primarily persons who share its religious tenets|
|self-certifies that it meets these criteria and specifies the contraceptive services for which it objects to providing coverage||not included in definition|
This change also clarifies that “a house of worship would not be excluded from the exemption because, for example, it provides charitable social services to persons of different religious faiths or employs persons of different religious faiths.” Significantly, the rule draws a line at non-profit organizations and would not permit for-profit entities (companies like Hobby Lobby, for instance) to take advantage of the religious exemption.
Women who work for the exempt organizations will still have access to birth control through their insurance companies at no additional cost. But whereas before these insurers added birth control to their existing policies, the new regulations state the insurers (or third-party entities, if the employer is self-insured) will provide separate, individual birth control coverage. The objecting employer will not “have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.” Under these terms, women may have separate policies — one for general health care and another for birth control.
Ultimately, the rule is not expected to significantly change existing policy or “expand the universe of employer plans that would qualify for the exemption beyond that which was intended in the 2012 final rules. However, it could help dispel the more than 40 lawsuits that have been filed by employers arguing that the religious exclusion was too narrow and simply an accounting gimmick.