February 14, 2012 — White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday said Senate legislation that would give employers wide authority to restrict contraceptive coverage is "dangerous and wrong," the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Two measures are pending in the Senate. A bill (S 2092) by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) would allow any employer to refuse to cover contraception for religious or moral reasons (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). Another measure (S 1467), sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), would go further, allowing health insurers or employers to deny coverage of any service for moral or religious reasons.
The bills aim to undermine new federal rules that require employers to offer contraceptive coverage in their health plans and the health reform law as a whole (Serwer, Mother Jones, 2/14). The 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.
Originally, the administration exempted certain religious employers -- such as houses of worship -- from covering contraceptive services for their employees, but it did not exempt religiously affiliated organizations with more general missions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities. On Friday, President Obama announced that religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their health insurance companies will be required to provide the coverage directly to women at no charge (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/13).
Carney said that both bills take "absolutely the wrong approach" and that it is essential for women to have access to no-cost preventive care, regardless of their place of employment.
A Rubio spokesperson said the legislation is necessary to protect "religious liberties" from "federal overreach" (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 2/13). According to Blunt, there is no distinction between the original religious exemption and the version announced on Friday. "I don't see how you could see it as anything but more of the same," he said (Strauss, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/13).
Also on Monday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) criticized an unsuccessful attempt by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to attach an amendment to reverse the contraceptive coverage rules to a bipartisan transportation bill. "Such amendments do not belong on a jobs bill," she said (Ryan, "Floor Action Blog," The Hill, 2/13).
In the House, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has scheduled a hearing on the contraceptive coverage rules and religious exemption for Thursday (Haberkorn/Nocera, Politico, 2/14). House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.) also is working on legislation to repeal the rules, according to The Hill's "Healthwatch" (Parnes/Baker, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/13).
Politico reports that the GOP's "strategy could backfire," given that many critics of the original religious exemption have accepted the modifications. Moreover, polls show that voters tended to support the rules even before the changes.
Waning public interest in debating contraceptive coverage could also undermine the GOP efforts. Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press said, "The public has been resistant to extended discussions of topics other than jobs and the economy" (Politico, 2/14).
Meanwhile, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and 87 House lawmakers on Monday wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing support for the new version of the religious exemption. The letter stated, "It is imperative that this rule be implemented so that women and their families have fair, equal and automatic access to preventive health services, including contraception, without additional cost or barriers" (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 2/13).
Some Catholic Institutions in New York Cover Contraception
The New York Times reports that although New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been one of the most vocal critics of the contraceptive coverage rules, some Catholic institutions in the state have complied with a similar New York state law for nearly a decade.
The Archdiocese of New York -- which Dolan leads -- and the Diocese of Brooklyn chose to self-insure rather than cover contraception after the state in 2002 began requiring health plans that include prescription drug benefits to provide contraceptive coverage. However, some Catholic institutions, including a few universities in the state, cover contraception in their employees' health plans (Berger/Kaplan, New York Times, 2/10).
Ron Paul's Birth Control Legislation
In related news, Mother Jones reports that GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) for several years has introduced legislation (HR 958) that would allow states to ban contraception and other activities protected under the right to privacy. If enacted, the measure could undermine the Supreme Court's Griswold v. Connecticut ruling that struck down a state law prohibiting contraception. The bill has no co-sponsors and has never made it to a vote on the House floor (Sheppard, Mother Jones, 2/14).