Minnesota groups watch and wait on Obama's health policy compromise

Minnesota health plans and religious groups are taking a wait-and-see approach after the Obama administration announced a compromise aimed at stemming the backlash to a controversial health policy.

The administration wanted to require religious-affiliated employers that provide health insurance to cover birth control for free, even if it runs counter to their beliefs. Now the White House says it is shifting that mandate from employers to insurance companies.

Under the new policy, the President says women will be able to obtain free contraceptive services whether or not they work for religious employers. Under the compromise, the religious institution won't have to provide the contraceptive coverage or have to refer their employees to places that provide it. Under a separate arrangement, the insurance company will offer birth control free of charge directly to policyholders.

Catholic organizations, which had vocally opposed the initial requirement, generally welcomed the announcement. Insurers were cautious.

The trade organization that represents Minnesota's health insurance plans said until the administration puts out the final regulations; it's hard to determine what announcement means for Minnesota's health plans.

"Without the official rules, we don't have enough information to really understand what's being asked," said Eileen Smith of the Minnesota Council of Health Plans. "Currently, Minnesota's health plans do cover contraception, so we're not sure how that will change or we'll be asked to change under the new rules."

The administration's move comes just a few weeks after it announced religious-affiliated employers, except for churches, had to cover birth control free of charge in their workers' insurance plans. This infuriated the Catholic Church, which opposes contraception.

Supporters said requiring Catholic organizations to choose between that stance and providing employee health insurance is an assault on religious freedom.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota called the President's move a good first step that doesn't go far enough. Spokesman Jason Adkins said the policy should also exempt individual business owners who object to providing birth control on moral or religious grounds.

"People need to focus on the fact that this is not a contraception issue fundamentally; this is a religious freedom issue," Adkins said. "An analogy I like to use is it's like forcing a Jewish or Muslim employer who is kind enough to provide lunch for her employees, to provide pork sandwiches, too."

University of St. Thomas Prof. Tom Berg, an expert on religion and the law, said there is much at stake in how this compromise plays out.

He said many progressives, including Catholics, supported the president's health care overhaul.

But those kinds of government initiatives are open for attack from their own supporters if they don't make room for religious concerns, Berg said.

"There are people out there for years now who have made the argument that you can't have government active in health care without it threatening our freedoms," he said. "And this contraception mandate was almost the perfect symbol of that."

At this point it's unclear whether the administration's move Friday has neutralized that symbol.