The new policy did little to quell criticism from Republicans, who have been rallying opposition to the rule and using the issue on the campaign trail to paint Obama as hostile to religion.
The announcement caps a frenetic month in which the administration often sent mixed signals and appeared caught off guard by the political fallout as even allies questioned its handling of the issue.
Obama took the unusual step Friday of making a personal appearance in the White House briefing room to announce the decision. This amends a rule announced in August and set to take effect this summer that will require employers to provide contraceptive coverage with no out-of-pocket costs as part of their health plans for workers.
Churches have always been exempt from the mandate. However, Catholic and other religious leaders had complained that the rule would force church-affiliated institutions, such as schools, charities, hospitals and universities, to pay for health services that violated their beliefs.
Under the new arrangement — the details of which have yet to be finalized — women who work for such organizations would still be guaranteed contraceptive coverage. But they will obtain it directly from their insurance companies, which must provide the coverage without charging an additional premium.
“I’ve been confident from the start we could work out a sensible approach here,” Obama said. “Some folks in Washington may want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but it shouldn’t be. I never saw it that way.”
Obama’s involvement in what amounts to a technical regulatory matter underscored the political stakes for a president in the midst of a reelection campaign in which social issues have gained unexpected prominence.
As the White House struggled to resolve the contraception controversy Friday, across town, potential Republican challengers Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were citing the birth control rule in stinging speeches to a gathering of conservative activists.
By contrast, several Catholic leaders, who had been pressing the administration for a broader religious exemption to the rule, seemed at least open to the plan. Cardinal-designate Timothy Michael Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who has led a national campaign on the issue, released a statement describing Obama’s decision as “a first step in the right direction.” He reserved judgement on the details.
Sister Carol Keehan, who heads the U.S. Catholic Health Association, went further, pronouncing herself “very pleased” in a statement. Shortly before his announcement, Obama called both Dolan and Keehan, as well as Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, aides said.