AP sources: Obama revamping birth control policy

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Rushing to end a political uproar, President Barack Obama on Friday will announce that religious employers will not have to cover birth control for their employees after all, The Associated Press has learned. The administration instead will demand that insurance companies will be the ones directly responsible for providing free contraception.

Obama's abrupt shift is an attempt to satisfy both sides of a deeply sensitive debate, and most urgently, to end a mounting election-year nightmare for the White House. The leader of a Catholic organization and a prominent women's group both expressed initial support for the changes.

Women will still get guaranteed access to birth control without co-pays or premiums no matter where they work, a provision of Obama's health care law that he insisted must remain. But religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it, and insurance companies will then have to step in to do so.

Obama will speak about his decision at 12:15 p.m. EST.

Senior administration officials confirmed the details to the AP but insisted they remain anonymous in advance of the president's announcement.

By keeping free contraception for employers at religious workplaces — but providing a different way to do it — the White House will assert it gave no ground on the basic principle of full preventative care that matters most to Obama.

Yet, it also was clear that Obama felt he had no choice but to retreat on a three-week-old policy in the face of a fierce political furor that showed no signs of cooling.

The White House consulted leaders on both sides of the debate to forge a decision.

The president of the Catholic Health Association, a trade group representing Catholic hospitals that had fought against the birth control requirement, said the organization was pleased with the revised rule.

"The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed," Sister Carol Keehan said in a statement.

Planned Parenthood also backed the revisions, saying the Obama administration was still committed to ensuring all women have access to birth control coverage, no matter where they work.

"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits," Cecile Richards, the women's group president, said.

Officials said Obama has the legal authority to order insurance companies to provide free contraception coverage directly to workers. He will demand it in a new rule.

Following an intense White House debate that led to the original policy, officials said Obama seriously weighed the concerns over religious liberty, leading to the revamped decision.

It was just on Jan. 20 that the Obama administration announced that religious-affiliated employers — outside of churches and houses of worships — had to cover birth control free of charge as preventative care for women. These hospitals, schools and charities were given an extra year to comply, until August 2013, but that concession failed to satisfy opponents, who responded with outrage.

Catholic cardinals and bishops across the country assailed the policy in Sunday Masses. Republican leaders in Congress promised emergency legislation to overturn Obama's move. The president's rivals in the race for the White House accused him of attacking religion. Prominent lawmakers from Obama's own party began openly deriding the policy.

The sentiment on the other side, though, was also fierce. Women's groups, liberal religious leaders and health advocates pressed Obama not to cave in on the issue.

The furor has consumed media attention and threatened to undermine Obama's re-election bid just as he was in a stride over improving economic news. Political reality forced the White House to come up with a solution to a complex matter must faster than anticipated.

The fact that Obama himself will deliver the news was a sign of the stakes.

Under the new policy, religious employers will not be required to offer contraception and will not have to refer their employees to places that provide it.

If such an employer opts out, the employer's insurance company must provide birth control for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.

The change will still take affect with an extra year built in, in August 2013.

Already, 28 states had required health insurance plans to cover birth control before the federal regulations were issued.

However, they appear to have differing exemptions for religious employers.

Obama's health care law requires most insurance plans to cover women's preventative services, without a co-pay, starting on Aug. 1, 2012. Those services include well women visits, domestic violence screening and contraception, all designed to encourage health care that many women may otherwise find unaffordable.

The White House says covering contraception saves insurance companies money by keeping women healthy; how the insurance industry will see the mandate is another question.

Without adjusting his stand, Obama has risked alienated Catholics who have become courted swing voters in such pivotal political states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2008, Obama won 54 percent of the total Catholic vote, compared to 45 percent for Republican John McCain.

As the week wore on, the White House increasingly signaled that a change was coming.

Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, said in a radio interview Thursday that "there is going to be a significant attempt to work this out and there is time to do that."

Outside advocates were urging a quick resolution.

"As a Catholic I don't want to hear about this in Mass every week until the election," said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats For Life of America. "I don't think it's good for the party and I don't think it's good for Obama's re-election chances."

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Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this story.

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