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Groups poring over fine print in Obama administration's latest proposed compromise on contraception

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2013 - The Obama administration’s proposal to allow women to get free contraceptive services while exempting more church-affiliated groups from the original mandate was warmly praised Friday by a representative of the St. Louis Planned Parenthood office, but the immediate reaction among local church-related groups was more subdued.

Initially, exemption from the mandate for contraceptive coverage was limited to religious institutions. But some church-affiliated hospitals and universities complained that they were being required to cover a service that violated their religious beliefs. Under the shift announced Friday, these groups would be exempted from the mandate, but their insurance plans still would have to provide contraceptive coverage at no cost to women.

Although some polls have shown that women who are Catholic generally support the administration position on birth control, it is unclear whether the administration’s shift will appease church-linked organizations that have been opposed to the initial mandate.

A year ago this month, Michael Panicola, a senior vice president at SSM Health Care, expressed disappointment over the contraceptive mandate, saying it would “force organizations like ours to go against our conscience and the explicit teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Panicola said late Friday: “In response to last year’s rule on women’s preventive services, SSM Health Care and other Catholic organizations expressed concerns with and asked for changes to the contraceptive coverage section of the rule. The Obama administration has issued a new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in an attempt to address these concerns. Given that the new rule is 70-plus pages, we will need time to analyze its many details before we are able to offer our assessment and provide comment.”

Likewise, the Archdiocese of St. Louis said it looked “forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.” In the meantime, the diocese said it wanted to echo comments of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said today that “we welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely.”

The St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association, representing more than 2,000 U.S. Catholic hospitals and health facilities, has said previously that it was “unacceptable” to exempt only churches from providing sterilization and contraceptive coverage. On Friday afternoon, however, spokesman Fred Caesar didn’t expand much on whether the administration had gone far enough in widening religious exemptions from mandated coverage.

Of the new proposal, CHA would only say that “we look forward to studying it in relation to our members' expressed concerns and sharing our assessment of the changes.”

Pam Fichter, president of Missouri Right to Life, was out of town on vacation and couldn’t be reached for comment.

At least one member of the Missouri congressional delegation dismissed the president's proposal.

"This announcement appears to be more of the same from the Obama Administration and continues to fall short of the steps needed to protect Americans’ religious freedom,” said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

That remark was in sharp contrast to the praise for the proposal from Paula Gianino, president of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. She called the latest shift a ”historic advancement,” adding that the move “delivers on a promise of giving women access to birth control without co-pay, no matter where they work.”

She said the change was more of a “clarification” that spelled out technical aspects of the proposal, “but the principal behind it is clearly consistent, and that is women in this country should have access, if they want it, to affordable birth control without any out of pocket cost.”

The policy, she said, “makes it clear for women that their boss is not to decide whether women can have birth control coverage in their health insurance plan.”

Rob Koenig contributed information for this story.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.