U.S. judge questions Trump administration on birth control rules

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[December 13, 2017]  By Dan Levine

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge questioned on Tuesday whether the federal government properly formulated new rules that undermine an Obamacare requirement for employers to provide insurance that covers women's birth control.

New rules from the Department of Health and Human Services announced in October let businesses or non-profit organizations lodge religious or moral objections to obtain an exemption from the Obamacare law's mandate that most employers provide contraceptives coverage in health insurance with no co-payment.

The move from President Donald Trump's administration kept a campaign pledge that pleased the Republican's conservative Christian supporters.

California and several other states with Democratic attorneys general promptly sued and asked for the policy to be blocked while its legality is decided.

At a hearing in an Oakland, California, federal court on Tuesday, attorneys for California argued the Trump administration acted too quickly and did not follow proper notice procedures when issuing the new rules.

U.S. Justice Department lawyer Ethan Davis responded that the Trump administration had to move quickly, given legal uncertainty over who is covered by the Obamacare mandates.

U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam questioned that argument.

"I don't know why that could not be done consistent with the standard notice and comment period," the judge said.

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Gilliam also asked several other questions about the logistics involved with issuing an injunction. He did not announce a ruling at the hearing.

The contraception mandate was implemented as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, former Democratic President Barack Obama's signature healthcare legislation, popularly known as Obamacare. Republicans, who control the U.S. House of Representatives, Senate and White House, have so far failed to repeal the law, a top presidential campaign promise of Trump.

In its reasoning for the move, the administration said among other things that mandating birth control coverage could foster "risky sexual behavior" among teens and young adults. It overturned the Obama administration's view that the birth control requirement was necessary to meet the government's "compelling interest" to protect women's health.

The state of California said it expected a surge in unwanted pregnancies as more women lose contraception coverage, which it said would affect public services.

(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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