The Trump administration will allow virtually any employer to claim a religious or moral objection to Obamacare’s birth control coverage mandate under a sweeping rollback announced Friday.
The new policies, which take effect immediately, reignite a fierce battle over one of the health care law’s most controversial provisions and quickly drew legal challenges. The requirement to provide FDA-approved contraception at no cost was long opposed by religious groups that heavily favored Trump, and has been wrapped up in litigation for more than five years.
“The United States has a long history of providing conscience protections in the regulation of health care for entities and individuals with objections based on religious beliefs or moral convictions,” the administration wrote in new rules.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it will file a lawsuit on Friday to block the long-anticipated rules from the Trump administration, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra also announced plans to sue. Women’s health groups for months have been preparing lawsuits against the new policies, which they say will enable employers to deny their workers access to needed care.
The Trump administration said it was acting to protect individuals and groups from being forced to violate their religious beliefs as it downplayed concerns that more women would struggle to afford birth control.
“The attempts by the previous administration to provide some protections were inadequate,” said a senior HHS official of the Obama administration’s efforts to provide workarounds for religious groups. “They are being rebuffed here.”
The administration issued two rules — one outlining how an employer could claim an exemption for religious beliefs, the other outlining an exemption for sincerely held moral convictions — on the same day Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for sweeping protections for religious freedom in a government-wide memo that could have far-reaching implications.
The new birth control rules hew closely to a draft that leaked in May and drew swift condemnation from Democrats, public health groups and women’s health care advocates.
“Today’s outrageous rules by the Trump Administration show callous disregard for women’s rights, health, and autonomy, said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “By taking away women’s access to no-cost birth control coverage, the rules give employers a license to discriminate against women. We will take immediate legal steps to block these unfair and discriminatory rules.”
It’s unclear how many organizations will now look to drop birth control coverage from their insurance plans. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling that closely held private companies could seek an exemption on religious grounds, only a few dozen employers requested one from the Obama administration, POLITICO found last year.
The birth control coverage mandate is broadly supported by the general public, polling has found over the years. And it appears to have reduced women’s spending on contraception. One study estimated that women saved $1.4 billion on birth control pills in 2013 as a result of the coverage requirement. About 55 million women have directly benefited from no-cost birth control, according to an Obama administration report released last year.
“Any move to decrease access to these vital services would have damaging effects on public health and women’s health,” said Haywood Brown, director of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Trump hinted at his plan to roll back the birth control mandate this spring as he signed an executive order on religious freedom, but the regulation had been tied up at his budget office for more than four months. By weakening the mandate, Trump is unilaterally paring back a small piece of Obamacare detested by his conservative base, which has grown increasingly frustrated with the GOP’s inability to fulfill its longstanding promise to repeal the health care law.
The Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate took effect in 2012 after the Obama administration accepted a recommendation from an independent panel to require plans to cover it at no cost to women. The administration exempted houses of worship and unsuccessfully tried to make accommodations for religiously affiliated groups to allow their employees to still receive the coverage from a third party. But those groups rejected the accommodations and filed dozens of lawsuits, leading to two separate Supreme Court challenges, including the Hobby Lobbydecision.
The Supreme Court last year ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated organizations, such as universities and charities, to reach agreement on an accommodation that would let employees of such groups have access to no-cost contraception. They never resolved the issue.
Advocates for religious groups called the rule a major step forward after years of fighting the mandate.
“Today President Trump delivered a huge victory for conscience rights and religious liberty in America,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement. “No longer will Catholic nuns who care for the elderly poor be forced by the government to provide abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans.”
The Trump administration argues that women have affordable contraceptive options should employers drop coverage, and that several government programs provide free or subsidized contraception for low-income women, including Title X family planning grants.
But women’s health advocates say that program is already underfunded, and other Trump administration priorities — including stalled plans to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood — would further erode access to affordable birth control.
“President Trump’s shameful war on women rages on,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in a statement. “By ending the birth control mandate, the President and his Administration are allowing employers to stand in the way of women accessing the healthcare that they and their doctors have deemed necessary.”