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Judge Strikes Down Mont. Law Barring Contraceptive Coverage for Low-Income Teens

Judge Strikes Down Mont. Law Barring Contraceptive Coverage for Low-Income Teens

May 10, 2012 — On Friday, Montana District Judge James Reynolds ruled that a state law that denies birth control coverage for teens in a state health insurance program is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, the Helena Independent Record reports (Johnson, Helena Independent Record, 5/10).

The lawsuit -- filed by Planned Parenthood of Montana -- charged that the state is violating the rights of young women in the Healthy Montana Kids program. Currently, the state covers birth control for the purpose of contraception for enrollees who qualify for Medicaid but not for those with slightly higher incomes who are enrolled Healthy Montana Kids. The program covers birth control pills for the purpose of reducing acne or menstrual cramps. About 10% of the program's 25,000 enrollees are girls ages 15 to 19 (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/6/11).

In his decision, Reynolds wrote that the "state has failed to provide a compelling state reason for this exclusion and has failed to show how this exclusion enhances the rights" of low-income teens. He also noted that the policy goes against the state's interest in reducing teenage pregnancy.

Reynolds added that restricting birth control to non-contraceptive purposes requires HMK to inquire into "the most intimate of doctor-patient relationships about the most fundamental personal autonomy decision -- whether a person desires to become pregnant or avoid pregnancy."

Anna Whiting Sorrell -- director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which operates HMK -- said that the ruling "clarifies what benefits are covered" and that the state will comply with it. The state has 60 days to decide whether to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

Reaction

Stacy James, CEO of PPMT, said the ruling serves as a "resounding message" that the "state of Montana should protect the privacy of all citizens equally and ensure equal access to health care for everyone, regardless of age" (Helena Independent Record, 5/10).

PPMT noted that Montana had been one of only four states -- along with North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas -- that prohibited birth control coverage through its Children's Health Insurance Program, which receives federal funding.

Last year, PPMT estimated that 450 teens in HMK were in need of contraception. The organization had been using federal Title X family planning funds to subsidized birth control for low-income Montana teens, at a cost of $10,000 annually. The ruling "frees up more resources for people who aren't covered," PPMT spokesperson Lindsay Love said (Volz, Great Falls Tribune, 5/9).

Meanwhile, Jeff Laszloffy -- president and CEO of the Montana Family Foundation, which supported the policy -- said the ruling took the "right of privacy too far," adding that the state "should not be encouraging risky out-of-wedlock sex between 13- and 14-year-old children" (Helena Independent Record, 5/10).