February 9, 2012 — Congressional Republicans on Wednesday vowed to fight new federal contraceptive coverage rules by passing legislation that would repeal the requirement, the AP/Philadelphia Inquirer reports (Cassata, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/9).
The contraceptive coverage rules implement a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles. Catholic hospitals, schools and other organizations are pressuring the Obama administration to expand a religious exemption to the rules so that they can decline to offer the coverage to their employees. As written, the exemption applies to certain religious employers -- such as houses of worship -- but not to organizations with more general missions (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/8).
Conservatives are framing the debate as a fight over "religious freedom," while supporters of the rules say it is a women's health issue.
In a floor speech on Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the federal government is "encroaching on religious freedom in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation's most vital institutions." He added that if the administration does not reverse its decision, "then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people, and the Constitution that we're sworn to uphold and defend, must" (Wallsten/Aizenman, Washington Post, 2/8).
Boehner said he had asked the House Energy and Commerce Committee chair to draft legislation to block the rules (Steinhauer, New York Times, 2/8). Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement that the panel plans to vote to overrule the policy "in the coming weeks." HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify before the committee on March 1 (Baker , "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/8).
In the Senate, Republicans Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) are pushing similar legislation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and GOP leaders will try to offer the bill as an amendment to other legislation, according to The Hill's "Healthwatch" (Bolton, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/8).
Democrats Defend Rules
Democratic lawmakers pledged to fight the Republican legislation and criticized GOP leaders for trying to undermine an important advancement for women's health (Rovner, "Shots," NPR, 2/8). Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said, "We stand here ready to oppose any attack that is being launched against women's rights and women's health" (New York Times, 2/8).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted that women need access to contraceptives for many reasons other than birth control. "A full 14% of women who use birth control pills -- that is 1.5 million women -- use them to treat serious medical conditions, not to prevent pregnancies," Boxer said (Rovner, "Shots," NPR, 2/8). She said Democrats would "use every legislative tool in our disposal to protect the women of America."
A few Democrats, including Rep. John Larson (Conn.), are urging the Obama administration to reach a compromise. In a letter to Sebelius, Larson wrote, "I believe that further flexibility needs to be granted to religiously affiliated organizations in this instance" (Haberkorn, Politico, 2/8).
Meanwhile, former Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) have stated their opposition to the current religious exemption (Wong, Politico, 2/8).
Religious, Physician Groups Express Support for Contraceptive Coverage
In related news, a coalition of 23 Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups on Wednesday released a statement supporting the contraceptive coverage rules, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports. The coalition includes several religious groups that support abortion rights, such as Catholics for Choice and Concerned Clergy for Choice (Baker , "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/8).
"We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services," the coalition said. It added that the administration is correct in requiring institutions "that do not have purely sectarian goals" to provide contraceptive coverage for employees.
The left-leaning group Doctors for America also announced on Wednesday that it had collected signatures from 600 physicians and medical students in support of the rules. The group noted that many women use contraceptives for medical purposes other than birth control, such as to control irregular menstrual bleeding (Norman, CQ HealthBeat, 2/8).
Mother Jones Examines Existing Federal Rule on Contraceptive Coverage
The central tenet of the new rules -- that employers must cover preventive care for women -- "has been law for over a decade," a point that "has been completely lost in the current controversy," Mother Jones reports.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in December 2000 that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, employers offering prescription drug coverage must include coverage of contraceptives. The ruling, which applies to employers with 15 or more workers, remained in effect throughout the presidency of George W. Bush.
In 2001, a federal court agreed with the EEOC's opinion, and reproductive rights groups have used the ruling as leverage to compel companies to provide contraceptive coverage. The percentage of U.S. employer-based employers covering contraceptives tripled to 90% over the next 10 years.
Judy Waxman, vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center, said the Obama administration's "policy is only new in the sense that it covers employers with less than 15 employees and with no copay for the individual" (Baumann, Mother Jones, 2/8).