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Another portion of the federal health law takes effect today. The Affordable Care Act now requires most health insurance plans to offer a range of women's preventive health services, including coverage of birth control, at no upfront cost.

But the rules remain the subject of legal challenges, as NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took a victory lap of sorts yesterday on Capitol Hill. Surrounded by more than half a dozen Democratic senators who voted for the health law, she noted that before the law was passed, many insurance plans either didn't cover basic women's health services, or charged high deductibles or copayments.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: So as a result, surveys show that more than half of the women in this country delayed or avoided preventive care because of its cost.

ROVNER: But starting today, that should no longer be the case, she said.

SEBELIUS: All new insurance plans will be required to cover additional services and tests for women, with no out-of-pocket costs, including domestic violence screenings, FDA-approved contraception, breast-feeding counseling and supplies, and a well-woman visit, where she can sit down and talk with her health care provider.

ROVNER: The benefits actually start the next time a health plan renews. Now most of that isn't very controversial, except that part about FDA-approved contraception. The original version of the rules issued by the Obama administration exempted churches and other religious entities, but still required religious-affiliated universities, hospitals and social service agencies to abide by the coverage requirement.

After a month-long backlash led by the Catholic church, the administration decided to give all religiously affiliated organizations an additional year, while it seeks a compromise.

Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin said he thinks that should settle things.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: So, I think the exception the Obama administration has come up with is sensible.

ROVNER: Indeed, while several Catholic and other religious organizations are suing to block the rules, at least one judge has said those lawsuits are premature, precisely because the administration has promised to try to find a workable solution.

But now there's a separate legal battle being waged against the contraceptive coverage requirement. It's coming not from religious employers, but from private business owners who happen to be religious and don't want to pay for a health benefit they say violates their beliefs.

Last Friday, a federal judge in Colorado said a heating and air conditioning company in Denver doesn't have to abide by the new rules, at least not for now.

Matt Bowman is the attorney representing Hercules Industries.

MATT BOWMAN: They've run it for 50 years, and they provide their employees with generous compensation and benefits, including for pregnancy and women's health. But they also run their company according to their Catholic beliefs. And they contend that every family, every business-owner, every American should be able to live and do business according to their faith.

ROVNER: Which in this case means not paying for contraception or sterilization or the so-called morning after pill for the firm's 265 employees or their dependents. Bowman says the requirement conflicts with another federal law.

BOWMAN: The mandate is in blatant violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the judge basically said that at first glance, that's what he thinks, too.

ROVNER: But Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center says she thinks there's no way courts will eventually allow private businesses to decline to offer health coverage just because it violates owners' religious beliefs.

MARIA GREENBERGER: Because it would give any employer in this country carte blanche to do whatever that employer wanted to do to cover or not cover anything.

ROVNER: And Greenberger says there's already precedent for courts stepping in, such as in the case of an employer who didn't want to provide benefits to married women.

GREENBERGER: Because they should be covered by their husbands, and married women can't be a head of household according to this employer's religion. Well, that was viewed as plain old sex discrimination and struck down.

ROVNER: The Colorado case still must make its way through the judicial process, as will several other cases brought by private employers. Meanwhile, the new rules begin to take effect for everyone else.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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