Correct contraception inequity, lawmakers are urged Family planning groups want health insurance required to cover costs

August 02, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Seizing upon the celebrity of the male impotence pill Viagra, family planning groups are pressing lawmakers in Congress and the states on a long-ignored demand that employers cover the costs of contraception as a health benefit.

They are confronting lawmakers with the inequity they see in some employers' covering Viagra while denying women help in avoiding pregnancy.

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Foundation of America, which has been leading the lobbying in Congress for birth control coverage, said, "The groundswell is there."

Maryland was the first state to require coverage of prescription contraceptives in workers' health insurance plans, approving a bill in April. At least a dozen other state legislatures are weighing similar measures.

In Congress, the Senate and House have approved provisions, attached to appropriations bills, that would require the federal government to offer all commonly prescribed forms of contraception, including birth control pills, intrauterine devices and diaphragms, to its 2.4 million employees who have health insurance.

The appropriations bills have yet to be considered, but the move to provide coverage for federal workers "is very good news," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, who with Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat, led the drive for the House measure.

"It demonstrates that across the ideological spectrum, we recognize that women -- and men -- have to have the right to plan their families," Johnson said.

Bills have been introduced in the Senate and House that would cover many of the nation's private-sector workers. Prospects for passage are uncertain.

The measures have been generally opposed by employers and insurers and by anti-abortion groups. But in Congress, at least, opposition has been more restrained than on other issues of reproduction and on lawmakers' efforts to require health benefits that the employers say would raise the cost of coverage.

The Senate measures have been sponsored by two lawmakers on opposite sides of the abortion debate: Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who is a liberal on the issue, and Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who opposes abortion.

"I didn't have to do a great deal of soul searching," Reid said. "We're not forcing anybody to use contraceptives. We're saying that if your plan prescribes prescription drugs, you have a right to prescription contraceptives."

Citing studies of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research and educational organization in New York that is a leading lobbyist for the benefit, Reid said that 3.6 million women had unintended pregnancies every year and that 44 percent of the pregnancies ended up as abortions.

"It's not a bunch of teen-age kids being promiscuous," he said.

Women also pay 68 percent more in out-of-pocket costs for medical care than men do, the institute says, in part because of the cost of contraception.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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