The Trump administration announced Friday that it will exempt employers from providing insurance coverage for contraception if it conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs, scaling back a rule created under the Obama administration.
The interim final rule was an outgrowth of Obamacare, which is written to give discretion to the Department of Health and Human Services to issue rules about what constitutes women's preventive care, meaning that different administrations can reverse or change the rules.
The new rules allow any employer to be exempt from the mandate "based on its sincerely held religious beliefs" or on "moral convictions." Employers who decide not to provide coverage do not need to inform the federal government but would need to tell their employees about their decision.
The rule change was intended to provide "relief to those who have been under the thumb of the federal government and had their religious freedom violated" and end "attacks on religious liberty and protects religious freedom for everyone," Roger Severino, director for the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, said in a phone call.
The new rule says, "Application of the mandate to entities with sincerely held religious objections to it does not serve a compelling governmental interest."
The Obama administration had issued rules saying that employers must cover all forms of contraception, from birth control pills to emergency contraception, without any co-pay to patients. The obligation had exemptions for houses of worship but not for companies that had closely held religious beliefs. More than 55 million women relied on the provision, the Obama administration had said.
Businesses with religious owners were concerned about paying for access to emergency contraception and intrauterine devices, or IUDs, which they liken to an abortion. The mandate was attacked by critics as an assault on religious liberty, and in the case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court held that as written, it violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. The Obama administration was steered by the justices to come up with a more narrowly tailored rule, which has now been revised by the Trump administration.
"This rule is consistent with the Supreme Court order," Severino said. "The rule provides relief for those who qualify and seek it. It does not provide relief for those who do not seek it."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which brought lawsuits agains the mandate, praised the rule.
"HHS has issued a balanced rule that respects all sides – it keeps the contraceptive mandate in place for most employers and now provides a religious exemption," said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket who was lead counsel on behalf of one of the plaintiffs, the Little Sisters of the Poor. "The Little Sisters still need to get final relief in court, which should be easy now that the government admits it broke the law."
In its new rules, the Trump administration writes that the change is motivated by "our desire to bring to a close the more than five years of litigation." The rules, however, are expected to generate more lawsuits from women's health groups.
Paula Stannard, counsel at HHS, estimated that roughly 120,000 women would be affected by the rule, given the companies that had filed lawsuits against the Obama administration. The official noted, as well, that some organizations object to only certain types of contraception, which she said would reduce the number of people affected.
She and Severino estimated that 99.9 percent of women would not be affected.
But Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the rules take "direct aim at birth control coverage for 62 million women."
'This is an unacceptable attack on basic healthcare that the vast majority of women rely on," she said. "With this rule in place, any employer could decide that their employees no longer have health insurance coverage for birth control."