The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health met today to discuss the federal government’s decision to require health insurers to cover birth control services without co-payments. Debate centered on a provision that allows religious employers to opt out of the mandate.

Through the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. Department Health and Human Services was tasked with selecting which types of health care insurers will have to cover as preventative care. Insurers would not be able to levy co-payments on such services.

At the request of a medical group, Health and Human Services included contraception in its list of preventative care. Even though the department also included an exemption to this requirement for religious employers, religious groups (largely Catholic) have claimed the exemption is “too limited.”

The discussion surrounding whether the new health law mandate threatens conscience rights was the subject of today’s committee hearing. Catholic groups, including pro-reproductive health groups such as Catholics for Choice, were invited to testify.

The Hill reports:

Republicans condemned the health law’s coverage expansion, calling it an unprecedented government intrusion on the religious freedoms of employers and insurers. Democrats countered that the GOP wants to put the “conscience rights” of employers before those of patients.

“When the healthcare law was being debated last Congress, the proponents adamantly refuted claims that this would be a federal government takeover of our healthcare system,” said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health. “Now, we have the federal Department of Health and Human Services forcing every single person in this country to pay for services that they may morally oppose.

“Whether one supports or opposes the healthcare law, we should universally support the notion that the federal government should be prohibited from taking coercive actions to force people to abandon their religious principles.”

However, other religious groups disagree. Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice said expanding conscience (or refusal) clauses are a burden on the women looking to access birth control services.

In his testimony to the congressional panel, O’Brien said:

Like many Catholics, I accept that conscience has a role to play in providing healthcare services, but recent moves to expand conscience protections beyond the simple right for individual healthcare providers to refuse to provide services to which they personally object go too far. Increasingly, demands and regulatory proposals attempt to grant that option to an institution or any individual along the spectrum of care, funding and coverage. It is incredible to suggest that a hospital or an insurance plan has a conscience. Granting institutions, or entities like these, legal protection for the rights of conscience that properly belongs to individuals is an affront to our ideals of conscience and religious freedom.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently criticized pushback against the recent decision requiring insurance plans to cover birth control without co-pays.

“Forty percent of unplanned pregnancies end in those women seeking abortions,” Sebelius said during a luncheon hosted by NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Wouldn’t you think that people who want to reduce the number of abortions would champion the cause of widely available, widely affordable contraceptive services? Not so much.”

For many women, steep co-pays have deterred them from purchasing family planning services in the past, a problem that has been exacerbated by the country’s economic troubles.

A recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll conducted by Public Opinion and Survey Research Program showed that two-thirds of Americans agree with the federal government’s recent decision to include birth control in its list of preventive services.

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