WASHINGTON — They defied the bishops to support President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul. Now Catholic hospitals are dismayed the law may force them to cover birth control free of charge to their employees.
A provision in the law expanded preventive healthcare benefits for women, and the administration said last week that must include birth control with no copays. The Catholic Health Association says a proposed conscience exemption is so narrowly written it would apply only to houses of worship. Some other religious-based organizations agree.
"I call this the parish housekeeper exemption — that's about all it covers," said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the 600-member umbrella group for Catholic hospitals. "What we are trying to do is make workable the conscience protection the administration says it is willing to give."
Most Catholic hospitals do not cover birth control for their employees, Keehan said, but state law requires them to in some places. Doctors caring for patients at the hospitals are not restricted from prescribing birth control.
The Health and Human Services Department is asking for public comment on its proposed conscience clause before making a final decision, expected later this year.
Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support greater access to birth control, which medical experts say promotes well-being by allowing women to adequately space their pregnancies.
Women's rights groups are opposed to any conscience exemption, pointing out that it's not specifically authorized by the health care law.
"All women do use contraception at some point in their lives, and we think it should be available to them as a preventive health service," said Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center. That includes women who work for Catholic hospitals and for the church itself, Waxman added.
Conscience exemptions are a common component of legislation that creates tension with religious mores. In this case, the Health and Human Services Department says the administration picked language used by states that require health insurers to cover contraception as a prescription benefit.
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