The Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine was encouraged by President Barack Obama’s announcement Friday that church-affiliated institutions will not have to include coverage for contraception in their employees’ health insurance plans, as had been required under health care reforms enacted last year.

But the diocese is not ready to say it’s completely satisfied by Obama’s proposal to have insurance companies cover contraception costs when religious employers refuse.

Bishop Richard Malone, in a prepared statement, called Obama’s decision “a first step in the right direction.” He added that “religious liberty, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, may need to be reinforced through further legislation.”

Malone’s statement echoed comments from national leaders. Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the head of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops and a fierce critic of the original rule covering hospitals and other employers, said the bishops were reserving judgment but that Obama’s move was a good first step.

The women’s health organization Planned Parenthood said Obama had reaffirmed his commitment to birth control coverage. The group’s president, Cecile Richards, added, though, that it would be monitoring for “rigorous, fair and consistent” enforcement so women get the promised coverage.

The Portland-based diocese sent a notice out to churches earlier this week meant for dissemination at Sunday’s Mass, asking members to write to their congressional representatives urging them to overturn the provision requiring coverage for contraception.

The diocese had no plan Friday to write a new notice in light of Obama’s announcement, but “perhaps we’d be looking at things a little differently now,” said Marc Mutty, public affairs director for the Maine diocese.

Obama’s vow to give all women access to free contraception through his health care reforms sparked a heated national debate three weeks ago, when he announced that religious-affiliated employers, including schools, hospitals and charities, would have an extra year to comply with the new law.

Churches themselves are exempt from covering contraception. For everyone else, the rule takes effect in August.

Religious groups said the extension was not enough, and called for the reversal of the requirement, which they said violated their religious freedom and would force them to act against their beliefs.

Twenty-eight states, including Maine, already mandate employers to cover contraception in their health insurance plans, and all but eight of them exempt churches. Mutty said Maine’s law exempts Catholic schools and churches. Other groups that want to be exempted from the state law have to act as their own insurance company, which means they’re regulated by federal law. That’s who the new requirement affects in Maine.

Obama said Friday that he awarded the extension to give time to address the concerns of religious groups, but that wasn’t an option once the issue became “a political football,” referring to resulting attacks on him by Republicans, including presidential hopefuls.

Because of the backlash, Obama said, the administration “needed to move this faster,” which led to Friday’s announcement.

Mutty, who found out about the compromise through text messages he received this morning, said he wasn’t surprised that Obama came forward with a new proposal.

“It was my hunch that he would be in a position that he would have to do something,” Mutty said.

Still, the compromise might not go far enough for the diocese. Even though insurance companies would pay for contraception, church-affiliated employers would be enabling its use by giving health insurance to employees, Mutty said.

The diocese hasn’t come down on whether it’s comfortable with being just one step removed, he said.

“We really feel a need to have the proposal before us so we can fully analyze it,” said Mutty.

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 cost 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.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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