The Trump administration is expanding exemptions to an Affordable Care Act rule requiring employers to include birth control coverage in health plans.
On Friday, the departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Labor issued "interim final rules" to make more entities exempt from providing plans that cover contraceptives without a copayment. They will create what a senior HHS official described as limited exemptions for organizations that have a sincerely held religious or moral objection to providing birth control coverage.
Under the eased rules, nonprofits, private companies, institutions of higher education and certain nongovernmental employers with religious objections can get an exemption from the mandate, an official told reporters.
"No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our healthcare system," HHS press secretary Caitlin Oakley said in a statement. "Today's actions affirm the Trump Administration's commitment to upholding the freedoms afforded all Americans under our Constitution."
HHS claims the rules will not affect 99 percent of women currently covered. However, the figure assumes that only the 200 entities currently in litigation against the government over the rule will get exemptions.
The action could set off a string of new lawsuits over the issue. The American Civil Liberties Union said it will file a lawsuit Friday challenging the new rules.
Some religious employers such as churches already do not have to cover contraception. Organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns, have objected to the requirement.
Women's health advocates have said expanding contraceptive coverage has improved well-being, beyond just preventing unintended pregnancies.
In a statement, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards called the action an "unacceptable attack on basic health care that the vast majority of women rely on."
Democratic congressional leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi both slammed the move, calling it a step backward that jeopardized women's access to health care. Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan praised it as a reinforcement of religious freedom.
An HHS official said the rules follow through on President Donald Trump's pledges to promote religious liberty.
The rules do not affect government programs that offer free or subsidized contraception to low-income women, according to HHS.