White House unveils new contraception opt-out
President Barack Obama's administration has unveiled an opt-out for religious groups that object to covering birth control in their staff health plans.
Insurance companies, and not faith-based employers, would bear the cost of providing contraception to employees.
The move is an effort to appease faith-based organisations, such as hospitals and universities, who objected to the requirement they provide such coverage.
Originally, the exemption was narrowly defined to focus on houses of worship.
Under Friday's announcement, free contraception will be provided for staff of faith-based organisations under a plan that is separate to the employer's healthcare policy.
This will exempt those bodies from "contracting, arranging, paying or referring for such coverage".
'Respecting religious concerns'
Roman Catholic bishops, evangelical leaders and other religious figureheads had lobbied for a broader exemption to the contraception requirement.
More than 40 lawsuits have been filed by religious groups and charities which say the requirement violates their religious beliefs.
It was not clear whether the new rules would satisfy religious leaders who were unhappy with the original requirement.
But Sarah Lipton, policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the rule met their goal of offering "seamless coverage" of contraception to those who would have been affected.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the new rules would provide "women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns".
The regulations are part of a landmark healthcare bill passed by President Obama, known as the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
They require most US employers to include access to contraception, including sterilisation, in their health insurance plans.
The latest changes say groups that identify themselves as religious and offer private insurance must allow women to receive contraceptive services directly from the insurer.
In cases where the group is self-insured, a third party would provide the coverage.
The health and human services department has said any costs for the scheme would be covered by a deduction in federal user fees for the policy issuer.
Supporters of the regulations say it would give women the freedom to make their own healthcare choices.
The latest rules do not specify a work-around for individual business owners who have religious objections to the rule.
The latest changes are open to public comment for 60 days.