New Guidelines Could Narrow Religious Influence on Women's Health Care

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced dramatic new women’s health care guidelines that require preventative services, such as birth control, screenings, STD testing and counseling, and breastfeeding support and supplies, to be covered under most insurance plans without a copayment, coinsurance, or deductible.

The new policy could also require some clinics and hospitals run by religious organizations to provide these services even if they go against the group’s religious dogma. 

These new health plan coverage guidelines, made possible by the passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (the health insurance reform legislation), were developed by the independent Institute of Medicine. HHS commissioned the Institute to determine what unique preventative services are necessary for women’s health and well-being. HHS has adopted all of the Institute’s recommendations.

You can see the full list of women’s preventative services covered and the details of when the coverage will take place (most beginning August 1, 2012) here.

The HHS guidelines offer a religious exemption for group health plans
sponsored by certain religious employers and group health insurance coverage connected to such plans in regards to the requirement to cover contraceptive services.

According to HHS under these guidelines, “a religious employer is one that : (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under Internal Revenue Code section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii).”

This is a very narrow definition for “religious employer” and is actually closely modeled after a definition used in about 27 states that already mandate contraceptive services coverage. So it could mean that most religious organizations—and in particular Catholic hospitals, clinics, and charitable organizations—that serve their greater community will have to provide contraceptive services. HHS will issue a final guideline after a 60-day period to allow for comments on the religious exemption. Let’s hope that going forward women will receive the full benefit under these guidelines, no matter who their employer is, and leave it to the woman’s conscience – and not her employer’s religious dogma – to determine what is right for her.

Several religious leaders are already up in arms about the implications of the new guidelines.

For more information about how these guidelines will help women and society, visit here.

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