A bill sought by women's advocates to require health insurers to include birth-control services in their prescription plans won preliminary approval in the House of Delegates yesterday.
A similar measure has cleared the Senate, and supporters are confident that the legislation is on its way to final General Assembly passage.
Proponents contend that the bill is needed as a matter of "gender equity" because some insurers offer plans that don't treat women's contraceptive drugs and devices the same as other prescriptions.
During hearings on the bill, backers said the cost of providing the contraceptive coverage would be far outweighed by the savings from preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Critics said employers shouldn't be required to offer benefits that might violate their religious beliefs. A leading opponent, Republican Del. Martha S. Klima of Baltimore County, called the bill "an intrusion into the religious freedom of our citizens and our business owners."
After a long and hard-fought debate yesterday, delegates voted 82-49 to reject a Klima amendment that would have created an exemption for private employers who object to providing contraception coverage for religious reasons.
Klima said many employers would object to the measure because some of the contraceptives included in the law can be used to induce abortions.
She noted the "morning-after" pill, which prevents pregnancy by blocking the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.
Del. Michael E. Busch, the bill's floor manager, said the bill requires that large employers' health plans offer the same coverage that is now offered in small group market plans.
"In my mind, this is not about religion, this is not about abortion," the Anne Arundel Democrat said. "This is offering a medical mandate to those who provide medical coverage for their employees."
Del. Kumar P. Barve said Klima's amendment would abrogate the religious rights of employees.
"Our employer does not have the right to tell us how to spend our paycheck. Health benefits are like a paycheck," said Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.
The legislation as approved would not tell employers they must offer prescription plans. But if they offered such a plan, contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration could not be excluded.
The bill would exempt religious organizations, such as the Roman Catholic church, that oppose artificial means of contraception.
The roll call on the Klima amendment indicated that supporters of the legislation have more than the 71 votes needed to pass the bill when it comes up for final passage today or Monday.
Del. Sharon M. Grosfeld, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the House bill, said the differences between the House and Senate versions are so minor that there should be no trouble resolving them.
After the vote, Klima predicted the legislation would prompt many small-business owners to drop prescription coverage. "If I was a small businessman, that's just what I'd do," she said.
Pub Date: 3/28/98