Health insurers must provide free birth control to women, the Obama administration said today, and non-profit religious employers such as hospitals and colleges must do the same in one year, the New York Times reported.
In its decision, the Department of Health and Human Services rejected a Roman Catholic Church request for an exemption for employees of Catholic hospitals, schools and charities.
The ruling “strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.
“This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost-sharing,” Sebelius said, according to the Times.
Most insurers must meet the requirement by Aug. 1, while qualified non-profit religious groups have the extra year.
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Employers must now cover all Food and Drug Administration contraceptives, including Plan B and sterilization procedures, without a deductible or co-payment.
Women’s groups said the decision is “a huge and important victory for women.
"Women need full and affordable coverage for all our health needs – including comprehensive contraceptive care – regardless of where we work," Cindy Pearson, head of the National Women's Health Network, told Agence France Presse.
Reaction from religious groups was decidedly negative. Two Catholic colleges – Belmont Abbey in North Carolina and Colorado Christian University – sued the government, arguing it violates their First Amendment and their religious freedom.
“This is not really about access to contraception,” Hannah Smith, a lawyer representing both schools, told Bloomberg News Agency. “The mandate is about forcing these religious groups to pay for it against their beliefs.”
Today’s ruling reinforced a 2010 law that requires health plans to provide preventive services at no cost to patients, including birth control.