WASHINGTON -- Faced with increasing pressure from religious groups and Catholic lawmakers in both parties over the new federal requirement for birth control coverage, the Obama administration is planning to announce an "accommodation" on Friday aimed at allaying some of the concerns of faith-driven employers. ABC News reported Friday morning that the announcement was "likely" to be made Friday. A source familiar with the deliberations told HuffPost the announcement was imminent.
One idea that has been mentioned is the "Hawaii model," by which an employer who morally objects to contraception could opt out and inform its female employees of where they can get that coverage outside of the employee health plan. In Hawaii, women who decide to directly pay the insurer out of pocket for contraception coverage are not allowed to be charged more than they would pay for their company plan.
ABC News reports that President Barack Obama's compromise would not go as far as the Hawaii plan, but would involve a third-party health company helping to provide contraception coverage. It actually makes financial sense for insurance companies to cover birth control, ABC's Jake Tapper notes, because unwanted pregnancies and resulting complications cost more than contraception and sterilization.
Under the current rule, only churches and other houses of worship are exempt from having to cover contraception at no co-pay for the women they employ. Although the compromise does broaden the conscience clause to exempt any organization who opposes birth control based on religious beliefs, the Catholic bishops have already rejected the Hawaii model as a viable alternative because Catholic organizations don't even want to refer women to contraception coverage.
"All the Founding Fathers saw that, and how far are we removed when we're sitting around talking about, well, maybe the Catholic church could make a referral to a service that it regards as intrinsically immoral," Bishop William Lori, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told the National Catholic Reporter. "We're pretty far way from the genius that inspired the founding of this country."
The Catholic bishops have called the new health coverage rule "an attack on religious freedom" and argue that all employers who object to contraception -- not just faith-based organizations -- should be exempt from having to provide it to their employees.
"That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, "not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers."
He added, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate."
Supporters of the provision say the only conscience that matters ought to be the conscience of the women, whose option to have affordable contraception should not be dictated by the religious beliefs of her employer. Some of them feel that the religious exemption is already too broad, because women who work for churches in any capacity are excluded from the option of coverage.
"Birth control is basic health care and women should have access to birth control, no matter where they work," Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood federation of America, said on Thursday. "The Obama administration's birth control benefit already includes an expansive refusal exemption, allowing approximately 335,000 churches and houses of worship to refuse to provide birth control for their employees."
A majority of Americans said they support requiring health plans to include contraception coverage, according to a new poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, and 58 percent of Catholic respondents said the same.
But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), along with a number of GOP lawmakers and a handful of Catholic Democrats in Congress, have criticized Obama for the mandate. Boehner said in a floor speech on Wednesday that if Obama didn't reverse the rule, Congress would use legislation to do it.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on Wednesday that the president was not interested in backing down on the rule, but that he would "work with those who have concerns" to implement it in a way that pleases all parties.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story quoted Bishop William Lori, as told to the National Catholic Register. The correct publication is the National Catholic Reporter.