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Senate Republicans Block Contraception Coverage Bill

By: Charlene Cristobal, Associated Press Email
By: Charlene Cristobal, Associated Press Email

Update: CBS Web News
July 16, 2014

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a bill aimed at restoring free contraception for women who get their health insurance from companies with religious objections, a legislative setback for Democrats that they hope will be a political winner in November's elections.

The vote was 56-43 to move ahead on the measure, short of the 60 votes necessary to proceed.

Democrats sponsored the election-year bill to reverse last month's Supreme Court ruling that closely held businesses with religious objections could deny coverage under President Barack Obama's health care law.

Republicans called the bill a political stunt aimed at helping vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the elections.

They have plans to introduce their own legislation they say "will make very clear that women have the same rights today to access contraception as they did before Obamacare was passed and before the Hobby Lobby decision," in the words of New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Ayotte, R-N.H., denounced her Democratic colleagues Tuesday for what she calls a "misrepresentations" of the Hobby Lobby ruling.

"The Supreme Court's ruling did nothing to change a woman's ability to access birth control or other forms of contraception. Our bill will reaffirm that no employer can prohibit an employee from purchasing an FDA approved drug or medical device," Ayotte told reporters.

She said the GOP approach will actually focus on ways to expand access like asking the Food and Drug Administration to study the safety of making contraception available over the counter and looking for ways to improve affordability by removing limits on health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts implemented by the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats have seized on the birth control issue as they look ahead to November with hopes of energizing voters, especially women, to preserve the party's Senate majority. Democrats must defend more seats, and Republicans are upbeat about their prospects of gaining the six necessary to secure control, especially in GOP-leaning Southern states.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is in a competitive re-election contest, summed up her party's argument on the issue.

"A woman's health care decision should be made with her doctor, with her family, with her faith, not by her employer with her employer's faith," Shaheen said in a Senate speech.

But Republicans said that the Democratic effort was merely a move to boost struggling incumbents and that both parties support a woman's right to make her own health care decisions.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats "think they can score political points and create divisions where there aren't any by distorting the facts."

In one of the most closely watched races in the country, McConnell faces Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in his bid for a sixth term.

Three Republicans broke ranks with their party - Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois - and backed the Democratic-led legislation. In a procedural move, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched his vote to no, allowing him to bring the measure up for another vote closer to the election.

All other Democrats backed the bill.

National statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more than 99 percent of women ages 15 to 44 who have had sexual intercourse have used at least one form of contraception.

"I trust women to make their own health care decisions, and I don't believe their employers should have a say in them," said Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a chief sponsor of the legislation with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Udall faces a tough race against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner in November.

In Colorado in 2008, female voters were critical to Udall's election to the Senate, favoring his candidacy 56 percent to 41 percent while men backed him 50 percent to 46 percent, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press and other news organizations.

In the 2012 presidential election, Democrats overall captured the female vote by double digit margins as did the party in House races - 55 percent to 44 percent - when Obama won re-election. Democrats enjoyed a slightly better edge in the 2008 elections when Obama captured his first term and Democrats maintained their congressional majority.

It was far different in the 2010 midterm elections, some eight months after Obama signed the health care law and as the tea party energized the GOP. Female voters backed Republicans 49 percent to the Democrats' 48 percent in a low-turnout election that enabled the GOP takeover of the House.

Late last month, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that requiring closely-held companies to pay for various forms of women's contraception to which they object violates the corporations' religious freedom. The decision marked the first time the high court had declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.

"Five men on the Supreme Court rolled back the clock on women in America," Murray said.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the court's decision has "awakened the pro-choice majority in this country."

In Kentucky, NARAL began a 30-second, black-and-white ad criticizing Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for his opposition to the legislation. The tag line said, "Mitch McConnell will never do the right thing for Kentucky women."


Update: Associated Press
July 8, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats say they will advance legislation to override the Supreme Court's recent ruling allowing some companies with religious objections to avoid the contraceptives requirement in President Barack Obama's health care law.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the ruling was outrageous and the Senate will do something about it. He says women's lives cannot be determined by the decision of five men.

The 5-4 ruling last month was a setback for supporters of the law but some Democrats have been aiming to use it to political advantage by focusing on Republicans' record on reproductive rights.

Senate Democratic legislation would undo the ruling by aiming to ensure all women have access to contraception coverage even if they work for a company that has a religious objection to it. Such a bill would have little chance of passage in the Republican-controlled House.


Update: Associated Press
July 3, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A divided Supreme Court has agreed to allow an evangelical college in Illinois that objects to paying for contraceptives in its health plan to avoid filling out a government document that the college says would violate its religious beliefs.

The justices said Thursday that Wheaton College does not have to fill out the contested form while its case is on appeal but can instead write the Department of Health and Human Services declaring that it is a religious nonprofit organization and making its objection to birth control.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor said they would have denied Wheaton's request and made the college fill out a form that enables their insurers or third-party administrators to take on the responsibility of paying for the birth control.


Update
By: Charlene Cristobal
June 30, 2014 - 7pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that that employers cannot be forced to provide contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act. Businesses like Hobby Lobby have been fighting the contraceptive mandate, saying that it is against their company's religious views. On Monday, the courts agreed with them.

In the 5 to 4 decision, the courts ruled that employers can refuse to cover certain birth control methods if it's against the business owner's religious beliefs. These methods include the morning after pill, or Plan B and IUDs. WCTV took to the streets to see what local residents thought of the new ruling.

Annette Grissom, a local Tallahassee resident says, "Publically owned businesses, they have the opportunity to make those decisions. Of course, as customers, we have the right to decide whether or not we want to patronize there. Whether we believe, agree, with them or not."

Maurice Esses, also a Tallahassee resident says that he disagrees with the ruling. He says, "I don't think that just because a certain business has an idea behind what is right and wrong, that means that they can put that on to someone else."

Women's right activists say that the ruling give employers too much of a say in personal and private decisions.


News Release: Associated Press
June 30, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that some corporations can hold religious objections that allow them to opt out of the new health law requirement that they cover contraceptives for women.

The justices' 5-4 decision is the first time that the high court has ruled that profit-seeking businesses can hold religious views under federal law. And it means the Obama administration must search for a different way of providing free contraception to women who are covered under objecting companies' health insurance plans.

Contraception is among a range of preventive services that must be provided at no extra charge under the health care law that President Barack Obama signed in 2010 and the Supreme Court upheld two years later. The law is considered the major accomplishment of his first term.

Two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts cast the pivotal vote that saved the health care law in the midst of Obama's campaign for re-election. On Monday, dealing with a small sliver of the law, Roberts sided with the four justices who would have struck down the law in its entirety.

Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, wrote the majority opinion. The court's four liberal justices dissented.

The court stressed that its ruling applies only to corporations that are under the control of just a few people in which there is no essential difference between the business and its owners, like the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain of arts-and-craft stores that challenged the provision.

Alito also said the decision is limited to contraceptives under the health care law. "Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer's religious beliefs," Alito said.

He suggested two ways the administration could ensure women get the contraception they want. It could simply pay for pregnancy prevention, he said.

Or it could provide the same kind of accommodation it has made available to religious-oriented, not-for-profit corporations. Those groups can tell the government that providing the coverage violates their religious beliefs. At that point, the groups' insurers or a third-party administrator takes on the responsibility of paying for the birth control.

The accommodation is the subject of separate legal challenges, but the court said Monday that the profit-seeking companies could not assert religious claims in such a situation.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was part of the majority, also wrote separately to emphasize that the administration can solve its problem easily. "The accommodation works by requiring insurance companies to cover, without cost sharing, contraception coverage for female employees who wish it," Kennedy said. That arrangement, he said, "does not impinge on the plaintiffs' religious beliefs."

Houses of worship and other religious institutions whose primary purpose is to spread the faith are exempt from the requirement to offer birth control.

In a dissent she read aloud from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the decision "potentially sweeping" because it minimizes the government's interest in uniform compliance with laws affecting the workplace. "And it discounts the disadvantages religion-based opt outs impose on others, in particular, employees who do not share their employer's religious beliefs," Ginsburg said.

The administration said a victory for the companies would prevent women who work for them from making decisions about birth control based on what's best for their health, not whether they can afford it. The government's supporters pointed to research showing that nearly one-third of women would change their contraceptive if cost were not an issue; a very effective means of birth control, the intrauterine device, can cost up to $1,000.

The contraceptives at issue before the court were the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, and two IUDs.

Nearly 50 businesses have sued over covering contraceptives. Some, like those involved in the Supreme Court case, are willing to cover most methods of contraception, as long as they can exclude drugs or devices that the government says may work after an egg has been fertilized. Other companies object to paying for any form of birth control.

There are separate lawsuits challenging the contraception provision from religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges and charities.

A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 85 percent of large American employers already had offered such coverage before the health care law required it.

Most working women will probably see no impact from the ruling, corporate health benefits consultants expect. Publicly traded companies are unlikely to drag religion into their employee benefit plans, said Mark Holloway, director of compliance services at the Lockton Companies, an insurance broker that serves medium-sized and growing employers.

"Most employers view health insurance as a tool to attract and retain employees," said Holloway. "Women employees want access to contraceptive coverage and most employers don't have a problem providing that coverage. It is typically not a high-cost item."

It is unclear how many women potentially are affected by the high court ruling. Hobby Lobby is by far the largest employer of any company that has gone to court to fight the birth control provision.

Hobby Lobby has more than 15,000 full-time employees in more than 600 crafts stores in 41 states. The Greens are evangelical Christians who also own Mardel, a Christian bookstore chain.

The other company is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., owned by a Mennonite family and employing 950 people in making wood cabinets.


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