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Bill expands insurance mandate to cover abortions, other services
Oregon is joining several other states that are seeking to protect no-cost birth control in case the federal mandate is rolled back as part of a potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Most legislation in other states has focused on preserving mandatory insurance coverage of hormonal contraceptives without a patient copay, with some other moderate expansions on the federal act. Oregon's legislation, however, reaches far beyond the federal law, to include abortions, vasectomies and other services.
Rep. Jeff Barker of Aloha is the chief sponsor of the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which was in the works well before Donald Trump won the November presidential election.
"Protecting a woman's right to choose is more important than ever, especially with what's going on in Washington," Barker said.
Oregon's legislation — the Reproductive Health Equity Act — was in the works well before New York billionaire Donald Trump won the November presidential election.
However, Trump's vow to repeal and replace President Obama's landmark health care law, popularly dubbed Obamacare, could intensify pressure to pass the bill. Republicans have made the repeal a first order of business this year.
The bill is intended to reinforce and fill in gaps in reproductive health care coverage under Obamacare and to expand those who are eligible for the benefits, said Laurel Swerdlow, advocacy director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.
"We remain deeply concerned with what is happening on the national level," Swerdlow said in a phone interview Wednesday, Jan. 18. "This legislation is in no way to be a remedy for political attacks on the Affordable Care Act. This is legislation to establish coverage for reproductive health care for all Oregonians."
For instance, abortion and vasectomies, services excluded from the Affordable Care Act mandate, would be covered under Oregon's legislation. Men, transgender individuals and undocumented immigrants would be eligible for the coverage.
"All Oregonians need access to full reproductive health coverage for families to thrive, for a healthier state and for a stronger economy," Swerdlow said. "Working families are under so much strain today, and oftentimes, they have a hard time making ends meet.
"What this legislation does is it recognizes that a right without access is not a right at all," she added, referring to the right to terminate pregnancies. "What we really want is to make sure that all persons have access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care that they need. We don't always know a person's circumstances. We aren't in their shoes."
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon was one of several advocacy groups that worked on the legislation. Others were the ACLU of Oregon, Asian-Pacific American Network of Oregon, Family Forward Oregon, NARAL Pro Choice Oregon, Oregon Latino Health Coalition and Western States Center, Swerdlow said.
Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham introduced similar legislation in 2015, though it did not include coverage for men, transgender individuals and undocumented immigrants. Bipartisan opposition in the Senate, however, kept her bill from progressing to a vote, she said. She and Barker are co-sponsors this year.
Barker is a retired police officer and chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He may sound like an unlikely champion of reproductive rights for women, but he said his background led him to sponsor this bill.
"As a cop, I've seen unwanted children and abused women. I've seen families stuck in a cycle of poverty. Lawful, safe access to contraceptives, and to abortion, are important," Barker said.
He's also 73 years old and remembers a time before the Supreme Court's landmark decision of Roe v. Wade.
"I've got two daughters, a sister, a wife. I understand that women need to be in control of their own reproductive decisions," Barker said.
Some senators felt covering abortions could be too controversial, Monnes Anderson said.
Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, said the anti-abortion organization would oppose the new legislation.
"While Oregon Right to Life takes no position on true contraceptives, we, of course, are opposed to abortion, which always takes the life of an innocent unborn child," Atteberry said in an email. "Because of the abortion component, ORTL is opposed to (the bill)."
Atteberry's comment raises the question of whether including abortion could sink the bill and doom other benefits such as coverage of birth control without a copayment.
"I believe that this year there will be much more pressure to pass this important bill," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. "I believe that events at the national level will add to that pressure."
The bill's proponents, including Rep. Barker, said they believe a majority of Oregonians will support coverage of abortion. The Legislature also has a Democratic majority.
"This is a bill sponsored by two Democrats, and Democrats are in charge" noted Rep. Sherrie Stenger, R-Scio, who sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year year to ban sex-selective abortions. "That is probably the most salient point in this conversation."
Lawmakers will consider the proposal during their session, which kicks off Feb. 1.
Since 2014, California, Illinois, Maryland and Vermont have passed laws adopting the Affordable Care Act's mandate to cover contraceptives without a patient copayment and expanded on the federal law's provisions. Democratic lawmakers in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York have proposed similar measures this year, according to a report earlier this month by Reuters.
By Dana Haynes