A year after a court blocked a federal rule that created "moral" exemptions for birth control coverage, the Trump administration published new rules with similar "conscience protections" for employers.
Two separate rules issued by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury finalized exemptions for employers that have religious or moral objections to contraceptive coverage. One rule (PDF) allows employers to claim "sincerely held" religious objects while a second rule (PDF) offers another exemption on moral grounds.
Under the Affordable Care Act, employers were required to provide contraceptive coverage with a few exemptions. The rules released on Wednesday would significantly loosen those protections.
The rules take effect 60 days after they are published on the federal register and "should affect no more than approximately 200 employers with religious or moral objections," according to a joint release from the departments.
The departments added that "the rules leave in place government programs that provide free or subsidized contraceptive coverage to low-income women, such as through community health centers."
Several courts blocked a similar interim final rule last year following legal challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a group of state attorneys general.
The latest rule could spark a new round of legal challenges. When the rule was under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last month, Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project told FierceHealthcare that "hundreds of thousands of employees, if not more, could lose their birth control benefit" if the final rules mirrored last year's regulation.
She added that new legal challenges could be folded into existing ones.
Louise Melling, deputy legal director of ACLU said in a statement that the rule would be a "chilling return to the days when the government treated women’s sexuality, and thus contraception, as immoral, perpetuating harmful stereotypes that have long been used to discriminate against women."
"The proposed rule was the subject of multiple lawsuits with two courts deciding against the Trump administration," she added. "We continue to stand with women and those who use reproductive health care services and will do so in the streets and in the courts.”
"Last night women—led by women of color—sent politicians who had attacked women’s health and rights in Congress and statehouses across the country packing," she said. "Today, in the wake of that loss, Trump issues two rules attacking people’s birth control coverage. These rules are illegal, dangerous and not what the vast majority of the American people want."
"Dangerously, the administration is willing to go around the courts to limit access to birth control," she added. "It is now up to the new pro-reproductive health majorities across the country to stop these attempts to dismantle the nation’s family planning program. Women will remember this attack on their basic healthcare.”