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FactCheck.org Comes To McCain’s Defense on Birth Control

After issuing a string of reports debunking many claims in several of Sen. John McCain’s recent campaign ads, FactCheck.org — a non-partisan fact-checking Website from University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Public Policy — defends McCain against a Planned Parenthood attack ad in its newest analysis. The ad in question features the now-famous footage of McCain squirming in response to a reporter’s question about the fairness of health insurance plans that cover Viagra prescriptions for men, but not birth control for women. The verdict: the problem doesn’t really exist. From the analysis:

Planned Parenthood is running a TV ad showing John McCain painfully groping for an answer to a reporter’s question: "It’s unfair that health insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. Do you have an opinion on that?"

> McCain had good reason to be flustered. The premise of the reporter’s question is a myth. We couldn’t find any data that show a disparity between health insurance companies that cover Viagra and those that cover birth control. The full range of contraceptives, in fact, are covered by more than 86 percent of private insurance plans written for employers.

A point of clarification: to be fair to the reporter, Maeve Reston of The Los Angeles Times, the footage featured in the ad is edited in a way that makes it appear as though she is taking the position that the alleged disparity is "unfair." If you view the complete exchange, you will find that Reston was paraphrasing comments made by McCain adviser Carly Fiorina.

Anyway, here’s what FactCheck.org turned up:

The ad implies there is a significant disparity between the number of insurance plans that cover Viagra and those that cover birth control. But that’s not the case. A 2004 report by the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute found that in 2002, 86 percent of the plans that insurance companies typically wrote for employers covered the full range of approved reversible contraceptive methods (birth control pills, hormone injections, implants, IUDs and diaphragms), and only 2 percent covered no methods at all.

> The worry that Viagra, but not birth control, is being included in health care plans is out-of-date, according to Adam Sonfield, who coauthored the report. He says that when Viagra initially became available and insurers began to cover it, “there was concern that this was the case and that insurance companies really were covering erectile dysfunction drugs but were not covering contraception.” This concern, he says, helped spur efforts to get contraception coverage mandated in 27 states, and contraceptive coverage rates shot up as a result. Sonfield’s study, which asked insurance companies about employer-sponsored plans, found that coverage of contraceptive methods had tripled from 1993 to 2002. Sonfield says that the number of plans covering birth control likely has continued to increase over the last six years, though he stresses that U.S. health care is still short of complete coverage…

> As for Viagra, independent studies of coverage are sparse, but the ones that exist don’t show that the drug is covered more than birth control. In 2000, an article in Health Affairs reported that “[o]nly about half of all U.S. health plans reimburse members for at least some Viagra pills.” A 1999 Washington Post article reported that the drug company Pfizer, which makes Viagra, estimated the coverage rate at 40 percent. And a 2007 Mercer survey of large employers (500 or more employees) showed that about 30 percent denied coverage of erectile dysfunction drugs, and most of the remaining employers imposed limitations on coverage. A Pfizer representative had no comment when we requested more up-to-date information.

So McCain gets a pass on this one. However, the footage was revealing in how it demonstrated McCain’s complete lack of comfort in discussing women’s issues. You could almost see the wheels turning in his head as he unsuccessfully tried to think of a way to answer the questions in a way that would satisfy his questioner — without also angering those religious conservatives who oppose birth control on principle.

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