Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
June 30, 1999, Wednesday, Late Edition -
SECTION: Section A; Page 1; Column
5; National Desk
LENGTH: 1442 words
HEADLINE: Insurance for Viagra Spurs
Coverage for Birth Control
BYLINE: By CAREY
DATELINE: BOSTON, June 29
Viagra, it turns out, has a political side
Last year's anti-impotence sensation has led to this year's
byproduct: Around the country, more than a half-dozen state legislatures, swayed
largely by insurers' coverage of Viagra treatment, have recently passed measures
requiring carriers that cover prescription drugs to pay for women's
contraceptives as well. More states are expected to follow.
Today New Hampshire's Legislature became the latest to send a
"contraceptive equity" bill to the Governor, joining North
Carolina, Vermont, Georgia, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii and Nevada. In an
additional half-dozen states, New York and California among them, contraception
bills have passed at least one house in recent months, according to the National
Conference of State Legislatures. Such measures have been introduced in more
than 30 legislatures in all.
For decades, women's advocates had little
success in pushing insurance coverage of
contraceptives. But now that Viagra has been made available and
quickly included in many insurance plans, they say, they have
been able to add to their arsenal of arguments the tough-to-beat issue of basic
fairness: if insurance can help a man enhance his sex life --
and at a pricey $10 or so a pill -- it ought to help a woman enable her own.
"That little blue pill gave the birth-control pill that's been around
for 40 years great credibility as an issue, because it's so clearly juxtaposed,"
said State Senator Jackie Speier, who is sponsoring the contraception bill in
California. Viagra made any argument against mandated contraception coverage
"laughable, really," Senator Speier said. "No one can really argue it with a
straight face anymore."
Most of the recent legislation requires coverage
of birth-control pills, intrauetrine devices, diaphragms and the long-term
hormonal treatments Norplant and Depo-Provera. Experts on women in politics say
the speedy success of so many contraception bills reflects not only good timing
but also the rising power of women in state legislatures. One result of that
growing power has been greater attention than ever to women's health, with new
laws on issues like breast cancer and "drive-through" baby deliveries.
On certain issues like contraception coverage, female legislators tend
to join forces across party lines, rally their male counterparts on both sides
of the aisle and become hard to stop, said Debbie Walsh, associate director of
the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University.
Men have acted as sponsors and supporters of many of the contraception
bills, said Linda Tarr-Whelan, president of the Center for Policy Alternatives,
a Washington group that has helped legislators push for the measures. But over
all, she said, the wave of contraception bills amounts to "the most striking
example in the legislative sessions that have just finished of the power of
Such power is considerably more pronounced in state
legislatures, where women are now an average of 22.3 percent of the ranks, than
in Congress, where they are only 12.1 percent and party lines tend to be harder
for them to cross.
In the United States Senate, Olympia J. Snowe,
Republican of Maine, championed a contraception coverage bill last year without
success, although a measure requiring such coverage for all Federal employees
did pass. Encouraged in part, a spokesman said, by progress at the state level,
Senator Snowe introduced her bill again two weeks ago with Senator Harry Reid,
Democrat of Nevada.
But even in states where women hold strong
leadership positions, the going has often been far from easy for the
contraception coverage bills. The Washington Legislature, for example, has a
higher proportion of women, 40.8 percent, than any other state legislature in
American history, and yet its contraception bill, which passed the Senate in
March, remains pending in the House, hampered by questions about its cost.
In Georgia, where the contraception bill did pass, "we were in the
bitterest of fights," said State Representative Nan Grogan Orrock, who sponsored
the legislation. "The right wing," she said, "pales beside the business
community," which opposed saddling employers with another
Even in Maine, where the State
Senate's president, a Democrat, and its minority leader, a Republican, joined
forces to sponsor the bill, there was a tricky moment: after the measure sailed
through both houses last month, Gov. Angus King, an independent, said the cost
gave him some reservations about signing it.
Then, the widespread theory
goes, he exchanged views with his wife, a former lobbyist for Planned
Parenthood, said Jane A. Amero, the minority leader. The Governor expressed
support for the bill the next day -- he has since signed it -- "and I think his
wife had a lot to do with it," Senator Amero said.
resistance to the bills has come from Roman Catholic groups that oppose birth
control and have fought, with mixed success, for exemptions for religious
institutions. There has also been some opposition from anti-abortion groups that
see morning-after pills as virtual abortion drugs, and from business and
insurance groups complaining of yet another state mandate.
Idaho's contraception bill foundered in committee, said a sponsor, Wendy
Jaquet, Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"There's a lot of influence the insurance companies have in our
Legislature," Representative Jaquet said, "and there's a real concern about
raising premiums. And it's hard to get across the argument that this is really
prevention, and if you have a baby the insurance companies pay
But in general, several successful sponsors elsewhere said,
pointing to a Viagra parallel has helped dissipate much of the opposition.
A similar Viagra effect has been observed as far afield as Japan, the
only industrialized country that bans birth-control pills. Japanese medical
authorities have long kept the pills off limits, citing concerns about their
safety. But earlier this month the country's top medical advisory council
suddenly changed its mind and recommended lifting the ban, propelled in part, it
seemed, by the uproar from women's groups that pointed to the speedy approval of
Viagra as proof of discrimination against women.
In the United States,
the statistic that coverage advocates most often cite is that women between the
ages of 15 and 44 spend 68 percent more on out-of-pocket health costs than do
men, much of it on contraception. (Among that age group of women, birth-control
pills are the most commonly prescribed drug.) The advocates note that nearly
half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended and that although 93
percent of health maintenance organizations cover
contraceptives, only about half of indemnity plans do so. A
drop in unplanned pregnancies, they argue, would lead to a decrease in infant
For their part, opponents tend to denounce the addition of
yet another mandate on insurers and yet a further cost for employers, estimated
at $1.43 a month per employee. When the cost of insurance
coverage rises, they argue, fewer employers and consumers buy it.
Americans, polls have shown, tend to favor requiring
insurance companies to cover contraception. So do an array of
medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists. Maryland, ahead of the pack, enacted a contraception coverage
bill in 1998, and several other states, including Texas and Minnesota, have
similar though less sweeping regulations.
One interesting aspect of the
new wave of contraception coverage bills is that Viagra, which counteracts
impotence, is not an exact logical parallel to pills or devices that counteract
conception. But it was close enough to be used that way by lawmakers who saw
their moment and jumped at it, political analysts note.
among women in politics seems to be growing, said Elizabeth A. Sherman, director
of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of
Massachusetts in Boston. Also at play, she and others said, is the growth of
women's caucuses, research organizations and leadership groups that give them a
strong position to push from when such a moment comes.
"So when an issue
like this or drive-through delivery comes up, they already have a caucus and
have respected women who have been in power and are ready," Ms. Sherman said.
"It's the political infrastructure that makes it possible for women in power to
drive these issues right to the top of the agenda." http://www.nytimes.com
LOAD-DATE: June 30, 1999