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Tue., Apr. 3, 2012 6:50pm EDT (Reuters) — Xavier University, one of the oldest Roman Catholic colleges in the United States, will cut off birth-control coverage for its employees in July, a move that has divided faculty members and students on the Cincinnati campus.

The abrupt cancellation of insurance benefits at the Jesuit university in Ohio comes amid a furious dispute between the Obama administration and the nation's Catholic bishops over contraception.

The administration has mandated that nearly all health insurance plans provide free birth control by this summer, with limited accommodations for religious institutions that oppose contraception on moral grounds. Top Catholic bishops have blasted that mandate as an attack on religious freedom.

President Barack Obama's allies, in turn, have accused the church of obstructing an important benefit for women.

The controversy prompted Xavier President Michael Graham, a Jesuit priest, to review the health insurance plan offered to the university's 935 employees. Graham announced this week in a letter to the faculty that the plan will cease to cover contraception on July 1.

Some faculty members who relied on the coverage said they were surprised and upset at the sudden end to benefits, which could raise their out-of-pocket costs for contraception by hundreds of dollars a year.

"It hadn't occurred to me that this would ever be an issue," said Tina Davlin-Pater, an associate professor in the department of sports studies.

Davlin-Pater, an athletic trainer who is not Catholic, said she viewed the denial of birth control coverage as an indication that "it's still OK to discriminate against women in today's world."

Student Facebook pages crackled with similar comments on Tuesday as word of the decision circulated. Amid the anger, a few on campus stood up to back the university administration.

"That coverage never should have been there in the first place," said Meghan Savercool, a junior majoring in theology. She called the move a crucial means of "upholding the Jesuit Catholic identity of the university."

The contraception mandate that sparked the Xavier move is part of a broad push by the Obama administration to provide free access for Americans to a variety of preventive services, from mammograms to childhood vaccinations to birth control.

Surveys have shown that an overwhelming majority of Catholic women of reproductive age have used contraception at some point, despite the church's teaching.

If the court strikes down the law, the mandate would likely evaporate. If the law is upheld, nearly all plans would have to cover contraception by Aug. 1. Religious institutions will have an extra year to comply, though several have filed suit to try to block the provision from ever taking effect.

The controversy has jolted some Catholic college presidents into scrutinizing the health insurance plans offered to their employees, hunting for potential conflicts with church doctrine.

"Many times, contraception was covered and the organization didn't even know it," said Michael O'Dea, executive director of the Christus Medicus Foundation, which promotes Christian health care.

It is not clear whether Xavier officials knew contraception was covered in their plan. A spokeswoman said the university's administration would not comment.

Though she would not speculate as to why the university president made his decision, Dorothy Engle, chairwoman of the biology department, said she and many colleagues found the timing suspect.

"It seems unusual to change the health care plan in the middle of the year," rather than wait until the open enrollment period when employees could sign on to a spouse's plan or look for other coverage, Engle said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Will Dunham) 11 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.

 

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