Obama Looks to Resolve Birth Control Controversy


President Obama speaks on energy at Buckley Air Force Base.

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By Jessica Yellin and Brianna Keilar, CNN

After an avalanche of criticism, the White House is working on a way to thread the needle on a new health care policy which will require all employers-including religious institutions-to cover contraception in their health insurance plans.

Policy makers are angling for a loophole that would ensure women receive coverage without forcing Catholic charities, hospitals and institutions to pay for it, two senior administration sources told CNN Wednesday.

The administration is especially interested in the Hawaii model, in which female employees of religious institutions can purchase contraceptive coverage directly from the insurer at the same price offered to employees of all other employers.

Sources said policy makers are also looking at laws in 28 states that have similar coverage requirements.

One source prominent in the progressive Catholic community said the Hawaii plan is a “reasonably good vehicle to try” for a solution that can allay the concerns of Obama’s Catholic allies.

Another favored plan, the source said, would be legislation that would allow women employed by religiously-affiliated employers to get contraceptive insurance from the exchanges created under Obama’s sweeping health care reform, rather than from their employer’s insurer.

Senior administration sources said while the Hawaii plan has appeal, it would not work nationally because the federal government cannot compel insurers to provide a side-contraception plan.

A source familiar with the Catholic community said the Obama administration talked to at least one progressive Catholic organization Wednesday as they looked to calm concerns about the policy on contraception. The White House would not confirm the discussion.

Sources familiar with White House thinking on a solution to the controversy caused by the ruling said the administration is aiming to win over progressive Catholics and is convinced approval from conservative Catholics is out of reach.

Catholic leaders, like the United States Conference of Bishops, have said nothing short of a reversal on the policy will allay their concerns.

As for a timeframe, policymakers will announce their decision when the Department of Health and Human Services officially releases the rule, sources said.

The new policy stirred an outcry last week among conservatives and religious groups–particularly Catholics, whose teaching opposes abortion and the use of contraceptives.

While churches are exempt from the rule, hospitals and schools with religious affiliations must comply. The new policy goes into effect on August 1, but religious groups will have a year-long extension to enforce the rule.

While the regulations have caused a firestorm of criticism, a new study released by the Public Religion Research Institute shows the majority of Catholics support the administration’s plan. Nearly 6 out of 10 Catholics think employers should be required to provide this kind of insurance coverage. Among Catholic voters, support for the measure is slightly lower at 52%.

The administration first signaled it was softening its stance on the rule on Tuesday, when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration was seeking alternative solutions for the issue.

“The president’s interest at a policy level is in making sure that this coverage is extended to all women because it’s important,” Carney said. “(On) the other side is finding the right balance…concerns about religious beliefs and convictions. So we will, in this transition period …seek to find ways to implement that policy that allay some of those concerns.”

On Wednesday House Speaker John Boehner called the policy an “ambiguous attack on religious freedom” and announced the chamber would pursue legislative action to prevent the rule from going into effect.

“If the president does not reverse the department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people, and the constitution, that we’re sworn to uphold and defend, must,” Boehner said on the House floor, adding the Energy and Commerce committee would spearhead the effort.

The Republican presidential candidates have also been vocal about the policy on the campaign trail. Frontrunner Mitt Romney has said he would eliminate the rule on his first day in office.

But on Thursday the White House hit back repeating an argument used by Romney’s GOP opponents and pointing to a Massachusetts law in effect while Romney was governor that required hospitals-including Catholic ones-to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.

“This is I think ironic that Mitt Romney is expressing — criticizing the president for pursuing a policy that is virtually identical to the one that was in place when he was governor of Massachusetts,” Carney said.

Responding to Carney’s remarks on Wednesday, the candidate said Carney needs to “check his history.”

In 2005 then-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney vetoed a bill that would have required all hospitals — including Catholic hospitals — to provide emergency contraception. The state legislature overrode the governor’s veto. Accordng to news reports at the time initially the governor said his administration would not enforce the law at Catholic hospitals; then he reversed course and said all hospitals would have to supply the morning after pill.

He’s quoted saying “my personal view in my heart of hearts is that people who are sbuject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information.” Two of his Republican opponents have recently attacked him for this decision.

“I worked very hard to get the legislature to remove all of the mandated coverages, including contraception,” Romney said during a media availability. “So quite clearly he needs to understand that was a provision that got there before I did and it was one that I fought to remove.”

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