House misguided on birth control

House misguided on birth control 

March 11, 2012

New Hampshire House Republican leaders have proven yet again they have no peers when it comes to combining ideological excess and shameful public policy. The latest example was the passage Wednesday of a Republican-sponsored measure allowing employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception on religious grounds.

When the current law was approved in 2000 it came after a year of study, numerous hearings and a bipartisan effort to craft a sensible solution. The goal was affordable contraception access for women in health insurance plans — one that combines pregnancy prevention with many other necessary medical uses for contraception drugs. It allowed for at least three exemptions for employers to opt out of the mandate including self-insurance coverage by churches. The mandate only applied if prescription drug coverage was part of a health insurance plan. The bill passed with broad bipartisan support and provoked no controversy the past 12 years.

But late last month, House Republican leaders had a revelation. The contraception coverage law, they decided, was actually a constitutional infringement on employers who have religious objections to providing such coverage. It was also an onerous mandate that caused skyrocketing health insurance premiums. In a normal legislative universe, these false revelations should have required, at a minimum, multiple public hearings to inform lawmakers and the public of issues at hand. If they existed we would have heard from employers who have had their religious liberties curtailed or received financial estimates from insurance providers about how costly the contraception mandate has been. Lawmakers could also have considered public health care risks of such a measure.

Instead, led by House Speaker William O’Brien, these Republican House leaders held one public hearing of less than two hours. In around 13 days, the amended version of House Bill 1546 was rushed to the House floor and passed 196-150.

Of course, this exercise was all about national, election-year politics and little about religious liberties and certainly completely failed to take into consideration women’s health. Curiously, after more than a year in power, House Republicans had said nothing about this onerous fiscal and unconstitutional mandate. But it became imperative when conservative Republicans in Washington attacked the Obama administration for a similar contraception mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordability Care Act. Thankfully, the U.S. Senate defeated a measure called the Blunt Amendment that was even more expansive and would have allowed for employers to deny any type of health care coverage on moral grounds.

In their haste to make women’s access to contraception an election year campaign issue, House Republican leaders showed a reckless disregard for the Constitution they claim to revere. Very simply, freedom of religion does not extend to the freedom to impose one’s religious beliefs on others in the public sphere — and more than 100 years of constitutional rulings have reaffirmed that limit. Health care coverage is a business transaction, not a religious service. Do we want employers to have the power to deny coverage on religious grounds? Do employers even want this power? These were unasked questions. Furthermore, expanding the definition of religious liberties into the public sphere opens up a Pandora’s Box on issues such as housing, employment, health care and commerce. It’s an open invitation to widespread religious discrimination from all sides.

Worst of all, this hastily produced legislation showed zero concern for legitimate public health interests of women who need contraception medicines for reasons beyond pregnancy prevention. Sexual activity is a fixation for too many opponents of contraception coverage and perhaps they should get a more informed perspective from their female friends, colleagues and relatives.

On too many issues of public importance, O’Brien & Co. have shown they don’t care what evidence actually exists — see voter fraud hysteria or a needless cut in the cigarette tax among the many examples — because it only matters what they believe to be ideologically true. Opponents of contraception coverage are fighting a battle long decided. This was a needless exercise in political posturing that could undermine the thoughtful work done in 2000 by Republicans and Democrats. We encourage the Senate to show better judgment with HB 1546 and either vote it down or shelve it. We expect Gov. John Lynch to veto this bill if it does get to his desk.