High-profile Democratic women are hitting back against the GOP’s opposition to the Obama administration’s new rule requiring insurers and employers to offer contraception in their health care benefit plans. Obama exempts houses of worship and nonprofits that primarily employ people of the same faith from covering birth control, while religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges can also eschew the benefit. Their employees would obtain the coverage — at no additional cost sharing — directly from the insurer.
Today, the Senate will hold a vote on a Republican substitute introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), which would allow any and all insurers and employers to deny their employees health benefits and services required by federal law based on their personal religious or moral objections. The measure has 37 co-sponsors — including the GOP leadership, women Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski (AK), Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Democrat Ben Nelson (NE), and Republican Scott Brown (MA). Brown has supported expansive conscience protections for religious organizations throughout his legislative career, but voted for a tougher contraception mandate as a Massachusetts state representative in 2002 and approved of a law requiring all hospitals — including Catholic institutions — to provide emergency contraception to rape victims in 2005.
After defending Obama’s rule last year, Democrats are now on the offensive. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Patty Murray (D-WA) have derided Blunt’s measure as “extreme” and “dangerous,” claiming that “It puts politics between women and their healthcare.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) warned, “This would gut the protections that were established in the Affordable Care Act and open a Pandora’s box that allows employers to deny coverage for virtually anything they might object to” and yesterday, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent that amendment would permit insurers or employers to discriminate against women:
“I am shocked that Senator Brown jumped in to support such an extreme measure,” Warren told me by phone just now. “This is an all new attack on health care. Any insurance company could leave anyone without health care, just when they need it most.” [...]
“This is an extreme attack on every one of us,” Warren said. “It opens the door to outright discrimination. It would let insurance companies and corporations cut off pregnant women, overweight guys, older Americans, or anyone — because some executive claims it’s part of his moral code. Maybe that wouldn’t happen, but I don’t want to take the chance.”
Indeed, under the measure, an insurer or an employer would be able to claim a moral or religious objection to covering HIV/AIDS screenings, Type 2 Diabetes treatments, cancer tests or anything else they deem inappropriate or the result of an “unhealthy” or “immoral” lifestyle. Similarly, a health plan could refuse to cover mental health care on the grounds that the plan believes that psychiatric problems should be treated with prayer.
Individuals too can opt out of coverage if it is contrary to their religious or moral beliefs, radically undermining “the basic principle of insurance, which involves pooling the risks for all possible medical needs of all enrollees.” As the National Women’s Law Center explains, Blunt’s language is vague enough that “insurers may be able to sell plans that do not cover services required by the new health care law to an entire market because one individual objects, so all consumers in a market lose their right to coverage of the full range of critical health services.” As a result, a man “purchasing an insurance plan offered to women and men could object to maternity coverage, so the plan would not have to cover it, even though such coverage is required as part of the essential health benefits.”
Significantly, two Republican women senators — Olympia Snowe (ME) and Susan Collins (ME) — have come out in support of Obama’s modified contraception rule and may oppose Blunt’s measure.
Read the full amendment here.
Fatima Najiy contributed to this post.