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  • The Wall Street Journal

Contraceptives Compromise Set Forth

By LOUISE RADNOFSKY, LAURA MECKLER and CAROL E. LEE

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama, hoping to quell an intensifying political backlash, on Friday announced a new policy that no longer requires a broad swath of religious organizations to provide employees with contraception coverage in health-insurance plans.

Under the new policy, insurance companies will be required to offer free contraception for these workers, the president said, a subtle shift aimed at moving the onus for the coverage from the employer to the insurer.  Catholic leaders had objected to the requirement, which exempted churches but not hospitals, charities and universities with religious affiliations.

“No woman’s health should depend on who she is or where she works or how much money she makes,” the president said.  But, he said, he was “mindful that there is another principle at stake here, and that is the principle of religious liberty.  As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.”

Mr. Obama announced the policy change at the White House, a sign of how high-profile the issue has become.  Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was at his side but didn’t make remarks.  Her department will issue new regulations later Friday, people familiar with the decision said.

Before the president made his statement, he telephoned Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association; and Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, to discuss the shift, an administration aide said.

The policy will allow religious employers to opt out of the coverage mandate.  If they do so, the employer’s insurance company will be required to offer contraception for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.

Women will still get birth control without co-pays or deductibles even if they work at these religious institutions.  That mandate stems from the health-care law passed in March 2010, which requires employers to cover preventive services at no out-of-pocket cost to workers.  The Institute of Medicine recommended that contraception be included on the list of covered services.

The policy won immediate praise from women’s advocacy groups, who said they were confident the provision hadn’t been weakened.

“We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth-control benefits,” said Ms. Richards.

The bishops haven’t yet publicly issued a reaction to the decision.  But Sister Keehan, who was a prominent supporter of the health-care overhaul, said in a statement that she was “pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.”

In recent days, the controversy showed no signs of abating, with congressional Republicans threatening legislation, GOP presidential candidates slamming the White House for what they called an assault on religious liberty and some Democrats voicing concern.  Catholic priests and bishops had railed against the policy in Sunday masses.

The White House had signaled all week that it was looking to quickly announce a compromise, and Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday said he was confident the administration would forge a compromise.

“I am determined to see that this gets worked out, and I believe we can work it out,” the vice president said.  “But the frustration…is real.…As a practicing Catholic, I am of the view that this can be worked out and should be worked out.  I know the president feels the same way.”

Mr. Biden said the administration wanted to “make sure women who need access to birth control are not denied that” and that “the church is able to be consistent with its teachings.”

Before the decision, Mr. Biden warned of the political reaction and consequences, saying the mandate would be read by some Catholic leaders as an intrusion into religious liberty and would alienate some moderate Catholic voters, according to people familiar with the deliberations.  But the president opted for a narrow exemption, agreeing with those who argued that women working for Catholic hospitals or universities should have the access to contraception that other American women will get.

Write to Laura Meckler at laura.meckler@wsj.com and Carol E. Lee at carol.lee@wsj.com

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