Birth control law repeal added to bill

Last modified: 2/22/2012 12:00:00 AM
Women's health care advocates were caught by surprise yesterday when they discovered a repeal of the state's long-standing birth control insurance law tacked onto an unassuming housekeeping bill.

The repeal, written by Republican Rep. Andrew Manuse of Derry and rewritten by a lobbyist for the state's Catholic church, would exempt not only churches, their hospitals and colleges but also private employers from providing contraceptive insurance coverage if they voiced a religious objection.

After several complaints and legislative changes late yesterday, Manuse's repeal is tentatively scheduled for a second public hearing at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow before the House Constitutional Review and Statutory Recodification Committee.

Current state law, passed in 1999 with bipartisan support and no objection from the Diocese of Manchester, requires insurance companies to cover contraceptive care. Employers, including churches, can bypass the requirement by self-insuring, and that is what the diocese does.

Manuse's repeal of that mandate surfaced publicly for the first time yesterday as an amendment to an unrelated bill that eliminates "obsolete or outdated" provisions from various state laws. The housekeeping bill Manuse chose - which does not deal with insurance, contraception or religious exemptions - was scheduled for a public hearing and a vote yesterday by the recodification committee.

The committee went ahead with the public hearing but held off on a vote after several people complained the public had not been given notice of Manuse's amendment.

Manuse said yesterday he brought his repeal language forward as an amendment to the housekeeping bill at the direction of House Speaker Bill O'Brien, the amendment's co-sponsor, because it is too late in the session to file a new, stand-alone bill.

The choice did not sit well with Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. She has been closely following O'Brien's efforts to repeal access to contraceptive care and had no idea the amendment was scheduled for a hearing and vote yesterday.

Frizzell learned of both when someone in the hearing room for another matter alerted her.

"The contraceptive coverage law is neither obsolete nor outdated" Frizzell said in an email, referring to the housekeeping bill's title. "It has benefited thousands of New Hampshire women. It is deeply troubling that the committee would deliberate on an amendment with such a broad group of stakeholders impacted and yet there has been no public notice provided."

This legislation did have a very quiet introduction compared with O'Brien's recent legislation condemning a new federal health care rule that obligates employers, save for churches, to provide birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. Church-affiliated organizations would not have been exempt in the original plan brought forth by the Obama administration, but a recent revision states that the health insurers, not the employers, would be responsible for the coverage.

O'Brien's resolution passed the House State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee yesterday, 13-5, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats against it.

O'Brien called a press conference to unveil that effort earlier this month and said additional legislation repealing the state's mandate would be coming.

But there was no press release announcing yesterday's hearing or any indication on the Legislature's calendar that Manuse's repeal was up for a hearing or vote.

O'Brien did not respond to a request for comment.

Committee Chairman Dan Itse, a Fremont Republican, scheduled a second public hearing and a vote on Manuse's amendment at the request of House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt, another of Manuse's co-sponsors.

Manuse said yesterday evening he was unaware that his amendment hadn't received the required public notice. He said he is rewriting his amendment to more clearly exempt churches and employers from the mandate. He told a WMUR reporter he was working with a lobbyist for the Diocese of Manchester on the new wording.

The lobbyist, Robert Dunn Jr., could not be reached yesterday evening.

Manuse said he and the House leadership are attempting to repeal the state mandate now because they only recently learned it existed. He said the news media brought it to their attention while reporting on O'Brien's bill condemning the federal contraceptive care mandate.

Yesterday, Rep. Al Baldasaro, a Londonderry Republican co-sponsoring Manuse's amendment, said the 1999 law was "slipped under the bus" without proper notice to the church community.

The legislative history suggests otherwise.

The 1999 Legislature that passed the mandate appointed a subcommittee to investigate whether churches should be given a religious exemption, according to legislative history. The subcommittee received no complaint from the diocese and concluded there was no need for a religious exemption.

There has never been an effort to repeal or change the law until now, according to lawmakers who worked on the mandate in 1999 and remain in the Legislature.

Frizzell characterized Manuse's amendment as an ongoing attack on women's health and access to contraceptive care.

"This Legislature has launched a full-scale attack on birth control," she wrote in an email. "Last month, voting to defund Planned Parenthood and women's health providers that serve low-income women and women on Medicaid and today focusing their efforts to eliminate c0ontraceptive coverage for women who have private health insurance."

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or at atimmins@cmonitor.com.)


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