Agencies Propose Changes to Birth Control Coverage

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Three federal agencies have proposed changes under the Affordable Care Act that would broaden the types of religious employers exempted from covering birth control and other contraceptive services for their employees.
     The Affordable Care Act requires certain contraceptive services to be covered by employers, as part of preventive health care. This provision was opposed by a number of religious organizations, which led to a proposed rule that would expand the exemptions for birth control coverage.
     The proposed rule was issued last week by the Department of Health and Human Services, Employee Benefits Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service.
     The departments published an interim rule in July 2010 providing, among other things, that a health care plan must provide coverage without cost sharing for certain preventive health services.
     The following year, the departments amended the interim rules to allow exemptions for group health plans by religious employers.
     The 2011 amended rule defines a religious employer as a nonprofit organization that "has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose," and primarily employs and serves people of the same faith. "These proposed rules mark the next step in the process," the departments wrote last week. "The proposed rules would make two principal changes to the preventive services coverage rules to provide women contraceptive coverage without cost sharing, while taking into account religious objections to contraceptive services of eligible organizations, including eligible organizations that are religious institutions of higher education, that establish or maintain or arrange health coverage."
     The departments continued: "First, the proposed rules would amend the criteria for the religious employer exemption to ensure that an otherwise exempt employer plan is not disqualified because the employer's purposes extend beyond the inculcation of religious values or because the employer serves or hires people of different religious faiths." "Second, the proposed rules would establish accommodations for health coverage established or maintained by eligible organizations, or arranged by eligible organizations that are religious institutions of higher education, with religious objections to contraceptive coverage."
     The departments are accepting comments on the proposed rules by April 8.