July 10, 2014 — House and Senate Democrats on Wednesday promoted bills that aim to preserve employees' access to contraceptive coverage, an issue that could serve as a flashpoint in the midterm election, Politico reports (Haberkorn, Politico, 7/9).
Democratic lawmakers introduced the bills in response to the Supreme Court's ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The justices ruled that closely held corporations cannot be required to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees if the corporations' owners have religious objections to contraception (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/9).
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a sponsor of the Senate bill, said the legislation "simply says that your boss cannot get between you and your own healthcare." She added, "Women across the country are outraged" by the Supreme Court's decision to "give CEOs and corporations across America the green light to design legally mandated healthcare coverage for their employees" (Bolton/Viebeck, The Hill, 7/9).
The bills would prohibit employers from discriminating against female employees by denying "coverage of a specific health care item or service" that is guaranteed under the federal law. The bills specify that no federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (PL 103-141), permits an employer to refuse to comply with the Affordable Care Act's (PL 111-148) preventive services requirement.
The bills also would prevent employers from using the Hobby Lobby ruling to deny employees coverage for any other preventive services, such as vaccinations. The measure would retain existing exemptions and accommodations for houses of worship and religiously affiliated not-for-profit organizations that object to contraceptive coverage (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/9).
Murray (D-Wash.) noted Wednesday that the legislation does not amend RFRA but that lawmakers could address that law in the future. Similarly, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a House sponsor of the legislation, said that House members want a comprehensive solution but are joining the Senate in a targeted measure in the meantime.
Murray said the Senate measure has 40 co-sponsors, none of whom are Republicans. DeGette said that she is "hopeful" some GOP lawmakers would sign on to the legislation.
According to CQ Roll Call, it is not likely that the bills would garner enough Republican support to pass. However, Democrats and their allies likely will use the legislation to motivate voters in the midterm election and put lawmakers on the record on the issue.
For example, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said her organization is "committed to mobilizing women across the country to help pass this bill and make sure that everyone knows where their elected officials are standing -- whether they're standing for them, or whether they're standing in the way of access to basic health care" (Attias, CQ Roll Call, 7/9).
Meanwhile, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) disputed claims that the debate was about birth control, arguing that "the real issue is whether the Obama administration can ignore the law and, in doing so, trample religious freedom" (Politico, 7/9).