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Wilson Veto of Birth Control Bill Attacked : Health: Activists call him a hypocrite for killing a requirement that insurers pay for contraceptives. He said it would hurt small businesses.

October 18, 1995|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Outraged women's health activists Tuesday attacked Gov. Pete Wilson for his last-minute veto of a bill that would have required insurance companies to pay for some FDA-approved contraceptives.

At a gathering in the Capitol, critics called the governor a hypocrite for killing the bill while declaring himself a defender of women's right to reproductive freedom.

"You either understand that women have a right to control their fertility or you don't," said Katherine Kneer, executive director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. "Wilson's words and his deeds don't match. We're very disappointed."

In an unusually long veto message, Wilson said that the cost of providing birth control coverage was unknown and that, therefore, it would be "irresponsible" for him to place such a mandate on small employers.

"This added cost may be the last straw that persuades them to drop coverage for their employees," said Wilson, who vetoed the bill late Monday, just before a midnight deadline to act on 1995 legislation.

The veto was applauded by some small-business owners: "We're pleased the governor shared our concerns about this legislation," said Leslie Spahnn, lobbyist for a coalition of small employers. "When you mandate that insurers provide benefits, you increase costs for the small-business community."

The bill (AB 1101), authored by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame), would have required insurance companies that provide prescription drug coverage to include "a variety" of birth control methods on their menu of benefits.

Supporters said the cost of doing so--ranging from $18 for a diaphragm to $252 annually for birth control pills--would be easily offset by a drop in costs related to unplanned pregnancies.

In April, a study by the Institute of Medicine in Washington found that the United States has twice the unintended pregnancy rate of any other industrialized nation and that 60% of American pregnancies are either mistimed or unwanted. Of 3.1 million conceptions last year, 1.5 million resulted in abortions, the study said.

Speier said her bill is needed not only to prevent unwanted pregnancies but to remedy discrimination against women in the health care industry. Surveys show that women in their childbearing years spend 68% more on health care than men of the same age, largely because women shoulder the expense of birth control--and are typically not reimbursed through their insurance plans.

One study by the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute, which conducts reproductive research, found that only one-third of all insurance companies cover the five most effective methods of contraception: IUDs, the pill, diaphragms, Norplant and Depo-Provera injections. Most companies will, however, pay for more expensive procedures such as abortion and sterilization.

"It is fundamentally unfair for insurers to cover all prescription drugs except contraception," Speier said. "It's gross discrimination against women."

Controversial from the start, the legislation was opposed by anti-abortion groups, Catholic organizations and small-business owners who feared their insurance costs would rise. Initially, insurance companies also fought it. But some wound up neutral after Speier altered the bill to require that only an unspecified "variety" of contraceptives be covered.

In a three-page veto message, Wilson said his primary concern was the potential costs the bill would bring to the state's small businesses. Critics, however, said the bill would actually result in cost savings for employers. Years of research, they said, have shown that for every dollar invested in family planning, another $4 is saved on prenatal care and other costs.

"There is no question this approach is cost-effective," said Charlotte Newhart, chief administrative officer in California for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "That issue was settled long ago."

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Newhart and others said they felt betrayed and puzzled by the veto, given the governor's longstanding support of family planning and abortion rights. In his first term, Wilson made contraceptives--including the controversial surgically implanted device Norplant--available to poor women through Medi-Cal.

Moreover, in his veto message, Wilson called on the state and America to launch a campaign aimed at attacking the rising rate of unintended pregnancies.

"We must succeed as never before in America to make contraception the responsible choice, the available option and moral obligation to prevent unintended and unwanted pregnancies," Wilson said.

Family planning activists could not agree more, but say that Wilson missed a prime opportunity to tackle the problem by vetoing Speier's bill.

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