Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company
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May 23, 1999, Sunday ,City Edition
SECTION: METRO/REGION; Pg. C8
LENGTH: 972 words
Coverage efforts get an unlikely boost
BYLINE: By A.
Jay Higgins, Globe Correspondent
AUGUSTA, Maine - Deep down inside, a group of savvy
Democratic women lawmakers know they've got Bob Dole to thank for propelling the
issue of reproductive equality into the 21st century.
For years, women
have clamored for insurance companies to pick up the costs of oral
contraceptives and other pregnancy-preventing devices under their health plans.
But until Dole emerged from the wreckage of a failed GOP presidential campaign
to become the poster boy for Viagra, they never had a prayer.
private insurers across the country are capitulating in growing numbers as the
demands for contraceptive coverage assume the form of
legislation in New England's state houses. In 1998, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe
sponsored legislation that secured contraception benefits for federal employees.
The states aren't waiting for broadened versions of the bill, which
would require insurers to cover contraceptives, to pass congressional muster.
Thirty-two states are currently reviewing the legislation and four have already
enacted the measure.
Last week Maine became the latest state to approve
the legislation, which covers the costs of oral contraceptive pills,
intrauterine devices, diaphragms, Depo-Provera (an injectable contraceptive),
and Norplant (an implantable contraceptive). The measure passed by a margin of
more than 2-1 in the House and was unanimously approved in the Senate. Maine
Governor Angus King said he will sign the bill later this week.
Maine, legislative sponsors in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut expect to
have their bills signed into law this year. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts,
the measures face a less rosy outlook.
"Insurance companies fall all
over themselves to cover Viagra," said Democratic Senate Majority Leader
Rochelle "Chellie" Pingree, of North Haven. "It's blatant discrimination to say
we're not going to cover prescription contraceptives if we have that sort of
The companies' own data show that women of
reproductive age spend about 68 percent more than men for out-of-pocket
health-care costs, according to Pingree.
But critics charge that the
legislation goes too far, requiring virtually all health plans, even some
affiliated with religious groups that do not support the use of contraceptives,
to cover them. The Catholic Church has been a particularly vocal critic of the
proposal. Marc Mutty, spokesman for the Portland diocese, said the Church is
adamantly opposed to the bill, particularly the aspect that includes coverage
for the "morning-after" pill, which prevents pregnancy when taken within 72
hours after intercourse.
"By our definition this can, and often does,
cause a spontaneous abortion, although proponents argue that is not true," he
said. "So we have real objections to that."
In the end, the best Mutty
could get for the diocese was a limited exemption allowing church and
religious-school employees to opt out of coverage on moral grounds. The lobbyist
is still upset over the sponsors' refusal to extend that exemption to Catholic
charity organizations, hospitals, and other religious-affiliated agencies.
"We consider this a slap in the face," Mutty said. "It's an insult."
Insurers have also argued that the legislation is not needed. Peter
Ajemian, a spokesman for the New England Association of Health Maintenance
Organizations, said about 93 percent of the region's HMOs already provide
contraceptive coverage and 90 percent of those include IUDs,
oral contraceptives, and diaphragms.
"Basically, we oppose the idea of
mandating this through legislation," Ajemian said. "We would prefer to see the
existing system remain in place because it allows employers some flexibility
without experiencing some of the negative side effects that mandates can lead
to, like cost increases. That's one of the large ones."
Katie Wheeler, a
Democratic New Hampshire state senator from Durham, co-sponsored a contraceptive
bill there. Citing statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute of New York, a
women's issues think tank, Wheeler maintained that contraceptive services and
supplies prevent 1.3 million pregnancies annually. Without those services, she
said, abortions would increase by 40 percent resulting in additional combined
federal and state Medicaid expenditures of $1.2 billion each
"The typical American woman spends 75 percent of her reproductive
life trying to avoid pregnancy. That's a frightening thought, but true," Wheeler
Other supporters like Mary Mushinsky were drawn to the cause as a
way to reduce teen pregnancy rates. The Democratic state representative from
Wallingford, Conn., said children of teenage mothers face bleaker futures than
those raised by a more mature parent who is better prepared to care for her
"The teenage mother hasn't finished the education she needs to
support a family and she's stressed out by school, job," and caring for a baby,
Mushinsky said. "The outcome for the child is subsequently diminished."
Kristine Glynn, legislative director for Massachusetts Senator Dianne
Wilkerson, said the Roxbury Democrat's contraception bill had a "50-50 chance"
for enactment, largely because of heavy lobbying by the four Catholic dioceses
of Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, state Representative Rhoda Perry, a
Providence Democrat, concedes her contraception bill is already "a goner."
But the bills' backers vowed to continue their legislative assault next
year. Until then, contraceptive advocates are chalking up "pill bill" victories
in 1999 with an initiative that remains popular with them even if the man who
unwittingly made a case for its enactment is not.
"Bob Dole wouldn't be
my candidate of choice," said Democratic Representative Anne Seibert, of
Norwich, Vt. "But he was good for us on this issue."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO, Maine Senate Majority Leader Rochelle
"Chellie" Pingree, a North Haven Democrat (right), with lobbyist Joanne
D'Arcangelo at the State House in Augusta. Pingree says it's "blatant
discrimination" not to cover prescription contraceptives. / GLOBE PHOTO / DAVID
LOAD-DATE: May 25, 1999