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HHS gives religious groups more time to comply with birth control coverage rule

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The Obama administration on Friday announced that most employers will be required to cover contraception in their health insurance plans, including nonprofit employers who currently don't cover birth control because of religious affiliations.

Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) adopted interim rules requiring employers to cover a range of preventive services for women, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine, without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible. That included birth control coverage, though the decision exempted certain religious employers.

Today's updated rule still exempts houses of worship like churches or synagogues, but other nonprofits will religious affiliations will have to comply. Most employers will have until August 1, 2012 to meet the rule, but religiously-affiliated nonprofits will have an extra year.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement the decision came after careful consideration of various concerns, including religious liberty.

"I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," she said. "The administration remains fully committed to its partnerships with faith-based organizations, which promote healthy communities and serve the common good."'

Sebelius noted in her statement that birth control is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women and is known to significantly reduce health costs.

Advocates for reproductive rights praised today's decision.

"Birth control is not just basic health care for women, it is an economic concern," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. "This common sense decision means that millions of women, who would otherwise pay $15 to $50 a month, will have access to affordable birth control, helping them save hundreds of dollars each year."

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