Contraceptive coverage and questions of whether or not it qualifies as a preventive service have been front and center in recent health care disputes between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as in public debates about recent administrative rules announced by the administration of President Barack Obama. Following its decision to issue guidelines outlining an employer’s responsibility to provide insurance coverage for contraception, the Obama administration announced on March 16, 2012, that students and employees of universities would be granted the same coverage.
The announcement made clear that student health plans will need to cover preventive services, including birth control, without copay or deductible. Beginning in August 2012, most student health plans and those for employers at universities will be required to cover contraception. If a school does not already cover contraception, it will be given the opportunity to apply for a one-year waiver. While the Obama administration voiced its determination to cover contraceptive services, it remains open to suggestions from the public. After the mandate was issued, the administration announced it would accept other possible options for 90 days that would mollify religious objections yet still assure contraceptive coverage.
Many are celebrating the new mandate, citing the mobilization and determination by young people to have their voices heard. A campaign led by Advocates for Youth in February 2012 asked young people to send mock valentines to congress that addressed their health care needs. Obama’s announcement of student coverage was a victory speech for those involved in such campaigns.
Originally, houses of worship were exempt from the preventive health care mandate but religiously affiliated charities, hospitals, and schools were not. An intense debate took hold between members of the religious community and republican politicians against the Obama administration and those in support of the coverage. The Obama administration recently allowed religiously affiliated institutions to opt out of the coverage, in which case the insurers would be required to directly cover the costs of contraceptives. Religious colleges and universities could similarly opt out, in which case the insurer would step in to cover the cost.
Over the past several months of debate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been the main religious group expressing opposition to the Obama administration’s decision to cover contraception as a preventive service, despite the compromise that insurance companies will have to cover the medication if the religious institutions decide not to. As noted by Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, “in the past months the vicious attacks ignited by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their allies have attempted to smear birth control itself and, sadly, the millions of women who use contraception. And women, especially young women, have noticed.” However, numerous other religious groups and individuals support the new coverage requirements.
In response to the announcement, Tanisha Humphrey, a student at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution that does not currently cover contraception, said, “For me, today’s ruling is very personal. I want to make the responsible decision, and without birth control coverage I wouldn’t be able to afford it. My friends and I have fought for this decision, and I am glad the Administration has stood with us.”
Sandra Fluke, a third-year law student at Georgetown University, testified before Congress, lamenting that contraception is not covered under the student health plan at Georgetown, and she has since continued to speak out in support of the Obama administration’s birth control policy. Fluke welcomed the announcement about university health plans but expressed her disappointment that, under the administration’s policy, “religiously affiliated schools and employers may delay a year before offering contraceptive coverage.” She said colleges “should not ‘delay what is now inevitable’ and should provide contraceptive coverage as soon as possible.”
Sixty-six members of the law school faculty sent a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia stating that the university should address the students’ concerns and consider providing contraceptive coverage in the student health plan.
President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, stands with those in support of the new mandate, highlighting the benefits of the coverage: “For many women, especially college students, birth control is not only a health care issue, it is a financial issue. Covering birth control with no co-pays means college students will not have to choose between paying for tuition and books, or paying for basic health care like birth control.”
Emily P. Walker, “HHS Addresses Birth Control Coverage at Colleges,” Medpage Today,16 March 2012, accessed 22 March 2012, <http://www.medpagetoday.com/Washington-Watch/Reform/31699>.
Jordan Rau, “HHS Floats New Ideas For Contraception Coverage Compromise,” Kaiser Health News,16 March 2012, accessed 27 March 2012, <http://capsules.kaiserhealthnews.org/index.php/2012/03/hhs-floats-new-ideas-for-contraception-coverage-compromise/>.
“Catholic Bishops Call Obama Compromise on Birth Control Dubious, Demand Broader Exemption,” Washington Post, 14 March 2012, accessed 20 March 2012, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/catholic-bishops-call-obama-compromise-on-birth-control-dubious-demand-broader-exemption/2012/03/14/gIQAuX1eCS_story.html>.
Sam Baker, “White House: Colleges Must Cover Birth Control for Students,” The Hill, 16 March 2012, accessed 22 March 2012, <http://thehill.com/blogs/healthwatch/health-reform-implementation/216485-white-house-says-colleges-must-cover-birth-control-for-students>.
Robert Pear, “U.S. Clarifies Policy on Birth Control for Religious Groups,” New York Times, 16 March 2012, accessed 4 April 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/health/policy/obama-administration-says-birth-control-mandate-applies-to-religious-groups-that-insure-themselves.html?_r=1>.
Planned Parenthood Federation of America, “Planned Parenthood Statement on Health and Human Services Announcement on Birth Control Coverage Benefit,” Press Release published 16 March 2012, accessed 4 April 2012, <http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/planned-parenthood-statement-on-health-human-services-announcement-birth-control-coverage-benef-39002.htm>.