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Contraceptive coverage bill sent for further study

State House Bureau

April 17. 2012 10:45PM

CONCORD - The Senate Public and Municipal Affairs Committee voted 4-0 to send a bill to interim study that would exempt employers who object on religious or moral grounds from a state mandate to provide birth control services as part of their health plan for employees.

The proposed change to state law would either protect religious freedom or discriminate against women, the committee was told during a public hearing earlier Tuesday. Supporters of House Bill 1546 said the current mandate is religious discrimination because it forces Catholic organizations to pay for contraception, which is against the church's principles.

House Deputy Speaker Pamela Tucker, R-Greenland, said it is not the job of government 'to force people to pay for something they don't want, so people who do want it don't have to pay for it.'

She said the bill would not lower health care costs and would not prevent women from obtaining contraceptives.

'This stands up for our religious institutions under assault for their religious liberties that have long-held principles and teachings,' Tucker said. 'Imposing anti-religious regulations on churches achieves no reduction of costs or availability of services; it only serves to please those pushing a political agenda.'

Bill opponents said the bill places employers between a woman and her doctor and would give religious organizations greater rights than individuals. They also argued the bill goes beyond religious organizations and would exempt any employer who objects to providing contraception on religious or moral grounds.

'This bill is not just limited to religious institutions or religious employers,' said Jennifer Frizzell of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. 'This language would adopt the broadest refusal provision in the country and would allow employers to interfere with employee access to health care.'

She said the bill would have far reaching effects. 'Proponents have suggested that this amendment is necessary to protect religious institutions, but HB 1546 allows any employer to carve out contraception from employee health insurance with no criteria or justification,' Frizzell said.

The state law mandating contraceptive coverage was passed in 1999 with bipartisan support and went into effect Jan. 1, 2000.

The law does not apply to organizations that self-insure for health care such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester, or if a health plan does not offer prescription coverage.

Neither religious organizations nor others have objected to the law, until last month when House leadership led by Speaker William O'Brien blasted the Obama administration for a similar requirement in rules released for the federal health care reform law only to find out the state had a law in place for 12 years.

At the Senate hearing, Meredith Cook, director of the office of public policy for the Diocese of Manchester, told the committee the current mandate violates one of the church's most basic beliefs: that religious freedom is a fundamental right of all.

'Amending these laws will not put women's health at risk,' Cook said. 'Instead, it will allow employers to support the health of their employees while crafting their insurance plans consistent with their religious beliefs.'

Former state representative and one of the sponsors of the 1999 bill, Liz Hagar of Concord, presented the committee with a petition signed by more than 4,800 women opposing the bill.

She noted the mandate saves insurance companies lots and lots of money because child birth is very expensive.

Another bill sponsor from 1999, former Sen. Katie Wheeler of Durham, said the real issue is equality. Without the current law, women would pay 68 percent more out-of-pocket health care costs than men.

The bill before the committee, Wheeler said, 'will create inequality on a massive nature.'

Dr. George A Harne, president of College of St. Mary Magdalen, told the committee his college employs only 26 people, not enough to self-insure for health care costs. When the college sought to change its insurance coverage to eliminate contraceptive coverage, it found it could not eliminate contraceptives without eliminating prescription drug coverage.

He noted one employee is undergoing treatment for cancer. 'Should we cancel his insurance?' Harne asked.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week.

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