WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Obama administration on Friday made it final that employees of religiously affiliated, non-profit institutions would receive insurance coverage for birth control amid mounting legal challenges to a rule in the recent healthcare law.
The White House proposed in early 2012 an arrangement that allows universities, hospitals and other employers with a religious affiliation to avoid paying directly for contraceptives. Instead, insurance companies provide coverage and foot the bill under the law.
The rule requires an institution's health insurer or third-party insurance administrator to notify employees about birth control benefits and provide beneficiaries with direct payments that cover the cost of contraceptive services.
The announcement was made by the United States (US) Department of Health and Human Services. It puts into effect a requirement that has been beset by more than a year of talks between administration officials and religious employers.
The US Roman Catholic bishops and other denominations oppose contraception on religious grounds and have protested against the requirement as have conservatives.
"Today's announcement reinforces our commitment to respect the concerns of houses of worship and other non-profit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage, while helping to ensure that women get the care they need, regardless of where they work," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.
The rule formally takes effect on August 1. But the administration gave non-profit employers an additional five months to adjust to the new regulations by having it apply to plan years beginning on or after Jan 1.
Other employers have been required to make contraceptives coverage available to their workers since last August.
Women's advocates applauded the regulations as a milestone that could have profound impact on the education and economic opportunities of women including college students.
"Birth control is basic healthcare for women, and this policy treats it like any other kind of preventive care," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Roberts said in a statement.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has spearheaded opposition to the policy, responded to the ruling.
"We have received and started to review the 110-page final rule," New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said in a statement. "It will require more careful analysis. We will provide a fuller statement when that analysis is complete."
LEGAL FIGHT EXPANDS
Opponents say the policy, part of President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, violates religious tenets of nonprofit and for-profit employers alike, particularly coverage for the morning-after pill to stop pregnancy and other types of contraceptives, which they view as tantamount to abortion.
Employers have had legal successes, raising speculation that the lawfulness of the rule may eventually be tested by the US Supreme Court.
More than 60 lawsuits have been filed by religious organisations and businesses against the requirement, and courts have granted some 20 for-profit businesses temporary relief from the law while their cases proceed in court.
Earlier this month, a federal judge in Pennsylvania granted the same relief to a religiously affiliated nonprofit for the first time in the case of Geneva College, which was established by the Reform Presbyterian Church.
Friday's regulations came a day after a federal appeals court in Denver ruled that Hobby Lobby, family-owned arts and crafts chain may be exempt from offering contraceptive benefits to its 13,000 full-time employees.
Hobby Lobby's lawyer, Mr Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund, said his organisation filed an emergency request late Thursday asking the district court to take immediate action on the company's request for an exemption from the mandate.
On Friday, the retailer was excused by a federal judge from paying up to US$1.3 million (S$1.65 million) a day in fines for not providing coverage.