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HHS decision to mandate contraception coverage renews action on ‘conscience-protection’ bills

The day after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services upheld the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation to include contraception in its list of preventive health services for women under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced legislation intended to to allow health care providers and pharmacists to deny birth control to women if it conflicts with their religious or moral convictions.

Blunt’s “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011,” Senate Bill 1467, thus far has two co-sponsors, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and it is an identical copy of a House bill that was introduced in March.

Five months before HHS ordered all Food and Drug Administration-approved forms of birth control to be offered to all insured women without a co-pay — a move that has become controversial, especially for anti-abortion rights advocates — Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb) introduced the “Respect for Rights of Conscience” bill, which anticipated HHS’s decision. One aspect in the Findings and Purposes section of both bills is:

PPACA [Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] creates a new nationwide requirement for health plans to cover “essential health benefits” and “preventive services” (including a distinct set of “preventive services for women”), delegating to the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to provide a list of detailed services under each category, and imposes other new requirements with respect to the provision of health care services.

Fortenberry’s bill has 44 co-sponsors and hasn’t seen any congressional action since March 28, according to bill records documented by the Library of Congress.

This legislation is intended to amend the Affordable Care Act by adding a section titled “Respecting Rights of Conscience With Regard to Specific Items of Services,” which states that a health plan will not have failed to provide “the essential health benefits package” described in the health care law, if the reason to deny coverage of certain services is because one or more of the services “is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions” of either the sponsor, issuer or entity offering the health care plan. That also applies to individuals, in the case of individual coverage, whose “religious beliefs or moral convictions” are in conflict with any services covered under the health care law.

Under the proposed legislation, health care providers will not be required “to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific item or service contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The day before Blunt introduced the Senate version of this bill, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), put out a press release criticizing the “new HHS ‘preventive services’ mandate requiring private health plans to cover female surgical sterilization and all drugs and devices approved by the FDA as contraceptives, including drugs which can attack a developing unborn child before and after implantation in the mother’s womb.” Declaring that the new ruling violates “conscience rights,” the USCCB called on Congress to pass the “Respect for Rights of Conscience” bill.

Despite the Institute of Medicine disputing claims that the FDA-approved contraceptive methods offered to be covered fully under the health care law cause abortions, statements such as USCCB’s have been perpetuated by influential policy groups such asAmericans United for Life and the Family Research Council.

This week on the FRC’s Washington Watch Daily Radio Commentary, FRC President Tony Perkins said:

Starting next August, fertility might as well be a disease–because that’s how the government will be treating it. This month, HHS ordered all health insurers to offer free birth control–regardless of anyone’s objections. Drugs like Ella and Plan B are part of the mandate, even though they can destroy a developing baby. Once the regulations go into effect, this “emergency contraception” will be considered basic medical care–and taxpayers who don’t agree will still have to pick up the tab.

Blunt’s bill has been read twice and referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions for review.

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