The Main Stream

Apr 19, 2012 3:18 PM

House approves revised contraception coverage bill

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona House on Thursday gave approval to a scaled-back but still controversial bill to relax the state's requirement that employer health plans generally cover contraception.

The House's 36-21 vote sent the bill to the Senate for a final vote. Senate approval would send it to Gov. Brewer, who voiced reservations about the original bill.

However, the Senate did not act on the bill Thursday and it's not clear when it will. Brewer on Tuesday told legislative leaders not to send her any non-budget bills before there's agreement on a new state budget.

Amid national debate about topics related to contraception and religious freedom, the Arizona bill approved by the Republican-led Legislature stirred controversy both for its potential change to workers' health plan coverage and privacy concerns.

"No one should be forced to pay for something that violates their sincere religious beliefs," said Rep. Terri Proud, a Tucson Republican who voted for the bill.

As a woman, Proud said, she has a right to obtain contraception, Proud added. "But it does not mean I have a right to force someone to pay for it."

Rep. Katie Hobbs, a Phoenix Democrat who opposed the bill, said she had "a hard time seeing this bill as anything to do with religious freedom."

"This is part of women's health care and we shouldn't have to fight for this very basic thing," Hobbs added.

The bill originally would have allowed any employer with religious objections to birth control to generally opt out of the state's requirement that health plans cover contraception.

To get votes for passage, supporters of the Arizona legislation had to water it down to only expand the current exemption for religious entities.

Opponents said any employer could drop the required coverage by changing its legal records to proclaim itself a religiously minded organization.

Backers of the bill acknowledge that was possible but said they didn't expect a rush for exemptions.

They said employers could be reluctant because limiting coverage could cause a stir in a workplace and because employers using the religious exemption must state their objection in a legal document.

As with the current law, employers still would have to provide coverage for medical purposes other than birth control. However, employees of employers who drop coverage for contraception for birth control purposes could be required to submit evidence of the other purposes to health plan administrators.

Supporters had described the scaled-back proposal as covering additional religious entities such as church-affiliated charities and hospitals, as well as churches previously covered.

But the revised wording, which was approved Monday by a House-Senate conference committee, does provide leeway for other types of businesses to claim the exemption.

It would permit an employer to limits its coverage if it identifies itself as a "religiously motivated organization" in the business formation documents that it files with the state and if its religious beliefs "are central to the organization's operating principles."

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