New HHS Rule Expands Options to Protect Religious Conscience

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is moving to fix a huge problem with Obamacare

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Obamacare — also known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — forced many Americans, from nuns to your neighbors, to choose between their faith or having health insurance coverage.

But the conflict didn’t end four years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the religious liberty of conscience-bound employers by concluding, in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, that some businesses could opt out of purchasing policies containing Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

While many employers have successfully claimed certain protections from the Obamacare contraception mandate, these protections do not typically extend to individuals and families buying coverage from the individual markets.

Under the Obamacare contraception mandate, insurance plans offered in Obamacare marketplaces must cover all FDA-approved forms of birth control.  Though employers may opt out of purchasing such coverage in limited circumstances, there has been no mechanism for individual consumers of the state markets to avoid purchasing plans that cover contraception.

These requirements force pro-life Catholics and others who morally oppose birth control to choose between purchasing coverage that violates their deeply held convictions or going without health insurance.

But that could change, at least temporarily. A new rule announced earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may give much-needed options to those conscientious objectors who purchase individual- or family-based insurance plans.

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As HHS Secretary Alex Azar explained, the new rule is part of President Donald Trump’s attempt to provide a “much more affordable option for millions of the forgotten men and women left out by the current system.”

The final rule enables insurers to offer short-term health insurance plans for an initial period of twelve months, which can be expanded to a maximum of 36 months.

These short-term plans are primarily designed to fill gaps in coverage that may occur when an individual is transitioning from one insurance plan or coverage to another, such as while between jobs. Under previous HHS regulations, these short-term plans were limited to a maximum period of three months.

What may make these short-term, limited-duration plans attractive is that under the newly announced HHS rule, they are exempt from many Obamacare requirements, including the contraception mandate.

Although the focus of the new HHS rule is to provide more affordable insurance alternatives to individuals and families not eligible for subsidized plans, this rule also provides relief to those whose religious or moral beliefs do not align with the coverage provided by Obamacare-compliant plans.

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By extending the duration of these short-term plans available for up to 36 months, these plans become viable, albeit temporary, alternatives to purchasing Obamacare-compliant plans on the individual state markets.

The three-year time frame allows those covered by such policies to plan ahead with the knowledge that their coverage will not expire in the next 90 days.  This means that those with moral objections to the mandatory coverages of Obamacare insurance plans have more options in purchasing insurance coverage.

These short-term plans have the additional benefit of often being substantially less expensive than unsubsidized Obamacare plans.

Although critics have opposed the new HHS rule because these short-term plans may not provide comprehensive coverage, the rule gives consumers more ability to choose the plan that is right for their needs.

The new rule also takes another step toward fulfilling Obamacare’s broken promise of “more choice, more competition, lower costs for millions of Americans.”  This increase of options is welcome in a regulatory system where Americans in one-third of all counties had no choice of providers for Obamacare-compliant insurance policies last year.

Though many American “forgotten men and women” still face difficult moral problems when purchasing long-term health insurance, the new HHS rule shows that the Trump administration is delivering on the president’s promise to give Americans more options without having to choose between their faith and health insurance coverage.

Reed Smith is counsel for the Plano, Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all.

The opinions expressed by contributors and/or content partners are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of LifeZette.

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