WASHINGTON, February 10, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The White House announced today that, instead of forcing religious employers to pay for birth control, it will force insurance companies to offer the drugs free of charge to all women, no matter where they work.

The plan, put forward as a concession to freedom of religion, was immediately denounced by Catholic Rep. Chris Smith as fundamentally the exact same mandate.

“The so-called new policy is the discredited old policy, dressed up to look like something else,” said Smith. “It remains a serious violation of religious freedom. Only the most naive or gullible would accept this as a change in policy.”

“The White House Fact Sheet is riddled with doublespeak and contradiction,” Smith continued. “It states, for example, that religious employers ‘will not’ have to pay for abortion pills, sterilization and contraception, but their ‘insurance companies’ will. Who pays for the insurance policy? The religious employer.”

In a statement released today, the White House said, “Under the new policy announced today, women will have free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where she works.”

“If a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge.”

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The birth control rule announced last summer was intended to force virtually all employers to cover sterilizations and contraception, including abortifacient drugs such as ella, a sister drug to RU-486. The religious employer exemption essentially applied only to houses of worship, creating an uproar in the Catholic and Christian community as hospitals, schools, and charities would have been forced to pay for the drugs. The furor only grew stronger when the administration announced last month that the concerned religious organizations would be given an extra year to comply.

President Obama reiterated the statement in a press conference this afternoon, saying that “the insurance company, not the hospital, not the charity, will be required to reach out” to women employed by such institutions to offer birth control “without copays, without hassles.”

Before it was released, the new rule was expected to be similar to coverage laws in Hawaii that allow employers with religious objections not to directly pay for contraception, but instead to direct employees on how to conveniently access all such drugs and procedures, an option one Catholic spokesman already said would be materially inadequate.

“It would be no improvement to say: ‘Sure, you don’t have to include the coverage, you just have to send all your lay employees and women religious to the local Planned Parenthood clinic,’” Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in an email to the Weekly Standard.

The reworded mandate offered even less of a concession to religious freedom than the Hawaii rules, as it still leaves religious employers footing the premium bill for employees receiving free contraception through their insurance.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said the new phraseology merely “adds insult to injury.”

“If the insurance plan of a Catholic institution must cover services it deems immoral, then such a healthcare plan is offensive, plain and simple,” said Donohue in a statement Friday. “When it comes to the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a half loaf.”

Eric Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League also told LifeSiteNews.com that the new rule amounted to a “shell game.” “At the end of the day, religious employers are still required to provide insurance plans that offer free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients in violation of their moral tenets,” he said.

The country’s Catholic bishops have not yet responded to the White House’s statement. However, both Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Health Association (CHA) have expressed satisfaction with the new plan.

“The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed,” said Sr. Carol Keehan of CHA. Keehan and her organization are perhaps best known for flouting the position of the Catholic bishops during the fight over Obama’s health care reform, throwing their weight behind the bill despite the opposition of the U.S. bishops over concerns the bill would increase abortion funding. Keehan was personally singled out by former USCCB President Cardinal Francis George for condemnation for her role in helping pass the health reform law.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards issued a statement, saying: “In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women’s health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work.

“We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman.s ability to access these critical birth control benefits. However we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care.”

The pro-abortion news source, RH Reality Check, lauded the news, noting that the rule is convenient because women would not have to purchase a separate rider for the contraception coverage.

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