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Feds: Church groups must cover the pill

WASHINGTON -- Many church-affiliated institutions will have to cover free birth control for their employees, the Obama administration announced Friday in an election-year decision certain to upset conservatives and add to the national debate about the reach of government.

Granting a concession, however, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said nonprofit institutions such as church-affiliated hospitals, colleges and social service agencies will have one year more to comply with the requirement than most other employers.

"I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," Sebelius said in a statement.

That's unlikely to stop a determined effort by social conservatives to block or overturn the requirement.

The decision is "a radical incursion into freedom of conscience," said Deirdre McQuade, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Officials said the administration's ruling was carefully considered, after reviewing more than 200,000 comments. The one-year extension, they said, responds to concerns raised by religious employers about the adjustments they would have to make.

Liberals praised the decision, saying that women who work for religious employers should not have to accept a lower standard of health insurance coverage.

At issue is a provision of President Barack Obama's health overhaul law that requires insurance plans to cover preventive care for women free of charge to the employee. A new federal regulation issued last summer included birth control. That rule, however, exempted houses of worship and their employees, as well as other institutions whose primary purpose is to promote religious belief.

It was a different story for religious-affiliated hospitals, colleges and social service agencies. Although many of those employers had not traditionally covered birth control, the new regulation required them to.

Workplace health plans will have to cover all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, the new regulation does not require coverage of abortions.

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