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Senate Votes to Force Insurers to Cover Birth Control Pills

Health: Bill, which goes to the Assembly, is the latest in a five-year campaign to require contraception coverage. Ex-Gov. Wilson vetoed earlier versions.


SACRAMENTO — A divided state Senate voted Monday to require health insurance companies to cover birth control pills.

During a brief but feisty debate, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Daly City) noted that the pill has been on the market for nearly 40 years, but she said it is the only class of drug not routinely covered.

By contrast, she pointed out, less than a year ago many insurers opted to include Viagra, the new and more costly anti-impotence drug, as a covered benefit for men.

She said Viagra, which can help lead to pregnancy, was swiftly approved as an insurance benefit, but, "the drug that could prohibit unwanted pregnancies is not."

"The time has come to get rid of the discrimination. That's all it is, pure discrimination," said Speier, a specialist in women's health issues.

The bill would apply to California health insurance companies that currently cover other prescribed medications. She estimated that about half now provide contraception coverage. Speier said millions of women would be affected.

Speier's Senate Bill 41, the latest in a five-year campaign to include birth control pills and other prescribed contraceptives as a required health insurance benefit, went to the Assembly on a 23-11 vote, two more than the majority required.

Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Bruce McPherson of Santa Cruz, voted for it. All the no votes were cast by GOP members.

A companion measure, AB 39, by Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) is pending in the Assembly. It would impose the same coverage requirements on health maintenance organizations.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed three such bills. A fourth died in the Assembly.

During his election campaign last year, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, a Roman Catholic, said he favored expanding women's access to birth control through health care coverage.

Speier told reporters that Davis has not taken a position on her bill, but she said other administration sources have indicated he would sign it.

Opponents of Speier's bill tried to amend it to exempt religious employers and hospitals affiliated with the Catholic Church, which opposes artificial forms of birth control.

Republicans charged that the state has no business requiring religious employers to provide insurance benefits that violate their moral beliefs.

But Speier, a Catholic, countered that such employers should not be allowed to "dictate" their beliefs to employees on matters as personal as health care.

"It is not a question of dictating one's religious beliefs on employees," insisted GOP floor leader Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine. "It's a question of the state compelling people to spend their money on programs that they do not, in [good] conscience, agree with."

Under heavy questioning, Speier said she was "holding conversations" with representatives of the Catholic Church and that she would "try to work out something, if we can."

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