Under fire, Obama adjusts his birth control policy

By Ben Feller

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 10 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

The debate within the White House was intense even before the Jan. 20 decision was announced to exempt only churches and other houses of worships from the requirement that employers must cover free contraception. Other religious organizations were given an extra year to comply, but that concession didn't do enough.

First in a rumble, and then in a roar, critics formed a movement to overturn what they considered to be an egregious violation. Bishops assailed the policy in Sunday Masses and Republican leaders in Congress pledged to push a legislative repeal.

The White House seemed to be caught flatfooted.

"The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions, or none at all, worried about the erosion of religious freedom and government intrusion into issues of faith and morals," said Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The turmoil, in turn, prompted advocates from other sides to get vocal in the battle for public opinion. They defended the rights of women and the need for preventive health care, including contraception, to be provided without fee for people of all faiths, no matter where they work.

Officials said Obama has the power under his health law to compel insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage directly to workers.

The health insurance industry voiced concern that putting the burden on them could set a precedent of shifting cost its way. The insurance companies will weigh in later as Obama's new policy undergoes review, said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for the America's Health Insurance Plans trade group.

Administration officials say providing birth control won't cost insurers any more in the long run, because it's less expensive than the costs of maternal care and delivery. But insurers say they'll have to pay drug companies for pills and doctors for prescriptions, so it won't be free to them. The costs probably will be passed on to policy holders, as is happening already with other requirements of the health care law, such as allowing young adults to stay under their parents' coverage until age 26.

By keeping free contraception for employers at religious workplaces — but providing a different way to do it — Obama was able to assert he had found "a solution that works for everyone." Unclear was why the White House had not come up with the idea in the first place.

While Obama in 2008 won the total Catholic vote, 54 percent to Sen. John McCain's 45 percent, he lost the white Catholic vote, 52 percent to 47 percent, according to exit polls. Once reliably Democratic, Catholics are now swing voters, with white Catholics making up the majority of the group.

The Rev. Joel C. Hunter, a moderate evangelical leader and a spiritual adviser to the president, said he thinks Obama responded quickly enough to heal the rifts with many of his religious allies. "I think it's simple enough that most people will say, 'Oh good, we can get to other things now,'" said Hunter.

Yet the change just led to more criticism from some of Obama's opponents.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said that that initial response indicated church leaders were not yet convinced the mandate respected religious freedom. Boehner has said he believes the original measure violates First Amendment rights, and his office said Friday that he would seek legislation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., an ardent support of the original measure, offered a restrained response. Focusing on the benefits of health care, she said: "I appreciate the president's unifying approach."

An Obama campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, said the political upshot for Obama was a powerful message to women, including Catholic women. By demanding the resolution now, Obama strips the issue from Republicans and positions himself to expand the gender gap of women supporting him over Republican Mitt Romney and other GOP presidential hopefuls, the official said

Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Erica Werner, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Jim Kuhnhenn, Laurie Kellman, Rachel Zoll and Jay Lindsay contributed to this story.

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