— -- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released two new rules today allowing employers to claim exemptions to covering contraception under the Affordable Care Act. The rules go into effect today.
The first new rule allows any employer to opt against providing birth control coverage based on the employer's religious beliefs. The second rule provides an exemption for organizations and small businesses that object on the basis of moral conviction rather than religious belief.
Legal challenges to the change in rules have already begun, including with a lawsuit filed Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union. Some state attorneys general are also conferring on possible legal action.
Since contraception became a covered preventive benefit under Obamacare, the share of women employees in the U.S. who pay their own money for birth control pills has plunged to under 4 percent from 21 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Health and Human Services Department says the change in rules will affect only a small fraction of women -- an estimated 120,000 nationally.
The changes "will not affect over 99.9 percent of the 165 million women in the United States," the HHS statement said. It added that the exemptions will likely only have an impact for the roughly 200 employers that have filed lawsuits based on religious or moral objections.
“No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our health care system," Caitlin Oakley, Health and Human Services press secretary, said in a statement. "Today’s actions affirm the Trump administration’s commitment to upholding the freedoms afforded all Americans under our Constitution," the statement said.
It is unclear how religious-affiliated employers, like Catholic hospitals and universities, will respond to the rule changes, according to The Associated Press.
As to publicly-traded companies, some may be able to claim an exemption under the religious belief rule. Public companies can't claim exemption under the moral conviction rule.
"The Trump administration just took direct aim at birth control coverage for 62 million women. This is an unacceptable attack on basic health care that the vast majority of women rely on," Richards said in a statement.
"With this rule in place, any employer could decide that their employees no longer have health insurance coverage for birth control," she said in the statement.
The ACLU was similarly critical, saying in a statement, "The Trump Administration is forcing women to pay for their boss’s religious beliefs."
Virginia State Attorney General Mark Herring said he and some other state attorneys general are discussing a possible legal response.
"Today's decision by the Trump administration puts healthcare decisions in the hands of a woman's employer, which is so demeaning, discriminatory, and dangerous that it's hard to put it into words," Herring said in a statement. "We have been anticipating this awful idea and have already begun working with other states to evaluate any legal response that may be appropriate to protect our citizens' private decisions and access to affordable healthcare."
The new exemptions are being praised as a major victory for religious conservatives, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops putting out a statement calling it a "return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state."
It was also applauded by the conservative Family Research Council and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., who tweeted "the administration ended a policy that was repugnant to our country’s tradition of religious freedom."