WASHINGTON — The Obama administration tried anew Friday to defuse controversy over a requirement in the health-care law designed to broaden access to contraception, proposing new regulations to protect some religious organizations from having to cover these services in their health plans.
The proposal, which comes after more than a year of heated debate, expands an exemption from the contraceptive mandate for churches and other houses of worship.
That was a nod to intense criticism from many religious groups that have been enraged by the provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires most employers to provide women contraceptive coverage with no co-pays or other cost-sharing.
But the Obama administration will still require insurance plans offered by hospitals, universities and other employers with religious affiliations to provide contraceptive coverage with no cost-sharing for employees.
Many of these organizations, including Catholic hospitals and religious universities, had complained that this arrangement would indirectly require them to sanction the provision of services they object to on moral grounds.
In February 2012, Ave Maria University east of Naples sued the federal government over the mandate. The legal battle is ongoing.
Statements from the Catholic school's president Friday indicate he will stay the course in opposing the Department of Health and Human Services' plan.
"The Obama Administration blew it again," Ave Maria University President Jim Towey said Friday in a written statement following the administration's announcement. "It wasted nearly a full year writing new, 80-page regulations that do not appear to settle anything."
He said that redefining faith-based employers who would be excluded from the mandate on the grounds that their religious beliefs preclude them from backing certain required services — in AMU's case, contraception — is necessary.
The changes announced Friday don't accomplish that, Towey said.
Instead, the administration "chose to propose a bizarre, new bureaucracy to obscure who exactly is paying for the abortion-inducing drugs and other services covered by the mandate," Towey added.
The university is waiting on a response from the country's Catholic bishops before decided whether to continue the suit.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and a leading critic of the contraceptive mandate, was noncommittal Friday.
"We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later," he said.
But a religious-rights group that represents employers said the new proposal doesn't go far enough.
"All Americans, not just those in church organizations, are guaranteed freedom of conscience in their daily lives and work," said Matt Bowman, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has filed lawsuits on behalf of family-based companies.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the new proposal Friday as a fair compromise.
"Today, the administration is taking the next step in providing women across the nation with coverage of recommended preventive care at no cost, while respecting religious concerns," Sebelius said. "We will continue to work with faith-based organizations, women's organizations, insurers and others to achieve these goals."
The latest administration proposal doesn't address separate complaints from for-profit companies that object to the contraceptive coverage mandate. Several of these firms are suing in federal court to block the requirement.
Friday's proposals drew quick praise from leading advocates for expanded contraceptive coverage.
"We applaud the Obama administration's unwavering support for implementing the Affordable Care Act in ways that will ensure women have access to basic preventive care, including contraception," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.
"That is a fundamental promise of reform, and a critical advance for women's health," she said.
_ Daily News staff writer Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.