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Obama administration's clever contraception fix

June 28, 2013|By Carla Hall
  • Prescription oral contraceptives.
Prescription oral contraceptives. (Los Angeles Times )

Many nonprofit religious organizations have balked at having to insure their employees' birth control -- because they don't believe in artificial contraception -- under the Affordable Care Act. On Friday, the Obama administration announced a solution to this problem.

The new healthcare law guarantees access to preventive services, and contraception falls, appropriately, into that category. Now, nonprofit religious organizations that object to offering this kind of coverage won’t have to in a direct way. Instead, employees who work for these organizations and get their health insurance through their employers will separately receive coverage of contraception from a third-party administrator -- at no-cost payments as long as they remain enrolled in the organization’s health insurance plan.

It works the same if the religious organization is self-insured. A third-party administrator steps in to offer the contraception coverage.

This is a clever fix that relieves nonprofit religious employers of having to pay for health services they don’t believe in, while still offering insurance for those services for employees who very much do believe in them and want them.

If the government is guaranteeing coverage to all Americans, then every employer should extend that coverage -- in some way -- to its employees, even if the employer has a profound religious objection to that kind of health service. Organizations that have fought this part of the healthcare mandate have argued that not only do they philosophically object but that having to facilitate access to certain services cripples their religious mission.

The problem there is that the people they hire (consider large Catholic hospitals and universities) to do specific jobs have the right to their personal beliefs and — under Obamacare — the right to insurance for preventive health services.

For-profit religious organizations, which so far do not get this special exemption, have been arguing that they should too. The Los Angeles Times editorial board disagrees, arguing that commercial enterprises selling air conditioning, pizza or scrapbooking materials, for example, are not engaged in a religious mission even if they are owned by religious people.

But on Thursday, the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals made a decision that might open the way for profit-oriented groups to seek a religious exemption. The owners of a chain of craft shops called Hobby Lobby argued that they too should be exempted from having to cover a health service they object to on religious grounds. The court agreed, coming to several troubling conclusions in the process, according to my colleagues Jon Healey and Michael McGough, who blogged about the decision.

This battle over coverage of contraception is not over, at least not in the for-profit world.

I realize that organizations fighting insurance coverage of contraception are doing so on religious principle. But in all these cases, whether they’re running nonprofits or for-profit enterprises, they’re all running businesses. Which is why they’re hiring people and providing them with health insurance.

Maybe they should step back and reconsider for a moment -- from a business point of view -- the enormous amount of money they’re spending on legal fees to fight an uphill battle against what amounts to a small portion of the healthcare insurance menu that many of their female employees probably want.

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