The Obama administration stuck to its guns last week and finalized a health care reform rule that will require most employers to provide their female workforce with free insurance coverage for birth control.
The rule, largely a reiteration of a draft first floated in February, survived national opposition from Roman Catholic bishops and for-profit employers alike who objected to providing free contraceptives on religious grounds. Of particular concern are the "morning after" pills Plan B and Ella, the use of which some religious opponents equate with abortion.
At issue: Religious-affiliated businesses
While the rule exempts churches from the requirement, faith-based nonprofits, such as hospitals, universities and schools, will be allowed to comply through separate third-party health insurance policies without having to contract, refer, manage or pay for contraceptive services.
However, for-profit companies that opposed the mandate, some based on the religious beliefs of their owners, were given no such accommodation in the final rule. That aligns with such precedents as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed workplace discrimination by for-profit enterprises while carving out exceptions for religious nonprofits.
The Department of Health and Human Services received more than 400,000 comments on the proposed rule, many of them fueled by the political firestorm over reproductive rights leading up to last fall's presidential election.
Contraceptives and health care reform
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called the birth control coverage mandate a central tenet of President Barack Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act, noting that birth control pills reduce unwanted pregnancies, improve bone health and prevent anemia.
"The health care law guarantees millions of women access to recommended preventive services at no cost," she said. "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."
The legal battle over the birth control mandate continued on another front last week when the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in Denver ruled that the craft store chain Hobby Lobby Stores can, as a "faith-based company," continue to challenge the requirement.
The free birth control mandate becomes effective nationwide on Jan. 1, 2014.
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Jay MacDonald is a Bankrate contributing editor and co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book by Bankrate editors and reporters.