Shaheen backs legislation aimed at dismantling Hobby Lobby decision

Last modified: 7/10/2014 12:40:14 AM
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is backing new legislation that would ban employers from refusing to cover certain mandated health benefits such as birth control. The legislation is a direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision that said requiring some companies to cover certain types of birth control violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Senate Democrats introduced the bill yesterday, signaling they are not willing to let the court’s decision stand without a fight. Sens. Mark Udall of Colorado and Patty Murray of Washington state wrote the bill and Shaheen is a co-sponsor, along with 33 other Democrats and two independents. Since the court’s decision came down last week, Shaheen has vocally opposed it and held roundtables, one in New Hampshire last week and another in Washington, D.C., yesterday, with advocates for women’s health care.

“We need to act now to make sure employers aren’t selectively denying health care to their employees. Women must have the access to the health coverage and benefits, including contraception coverage, they have been guaranteed under federal law,” Shaheen said in a statement.

U.S. Reps. Annie Kuster and Carol Shea-Porter, both Democrats, co-sponsored a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. In statements, Kuster said the court’s decision strips away women’s access to important health services and Shea-Porter called the decision “disturbing” and urged Congress to act immediately.

Craft store Hobby Lobby, a for-profit company whose owners have a strong religious background, sued the federal government over a mandate within the Affordable Care Act that requires group insurance plans to cover contraceptives. The plaintiffs said being forced to cover four specific types of birth control, including the so-called morning after pill and IUDs, violated their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The court sided with Hobby Lobby in a narrow ruling that says under the act, employers can’t be forced to provide those limited types of coverage. Republicans are calling the ruling a win for religious freedom and evidence that the “one-size-fits-all’ approach of the Affordable Care Act isn’t working. But Democrats say the ruling could jeopardize women’s access to important health care needs.

Part of the controversy around the decision has been whether women who work for organizations such as Hobby Lobby will still have access to those four contraceptives through other means. The Affordable Care Act includes a workaround that requires the insurers to pay for the coverage directly when exempt religious organizations disagree with it. But some religious nonprofits are also challenging that exemption procedure, leaving uncertainty about what avenues women will have to obtain benefits their employers refuse to cover.

The Democrats’ new law says employers who use group health plans can’t deny coverage for certain benefits, despite the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It keeps in place exemptions for churches or other houses of worship as well as nonprofit organizations with religious ties.

“Birth control is a critical health service for women,” the bill says. “In addition to providing health benefits for women, access to birth control has been directly connected to women’s economic success and ability to participate in society equally.”

The bill has little to no chance of being passed into law, as it will face strong opposition in the Republican-led House. But Democrats are rallying around women’s health issues leading up to the fall elections, both in New Hampshire and across the country.

Shaheen’s re-election campaign has highlighted her position on women’s health issues as vastly different from her top Republican opponent, Scott Brown.

A WMUR Granite State Poll released last night shows Shaheen polling much stronger with women than Brown.

As a U.S. senator from Massachusetts in 2012, Brown co-sponsored an amendment that would have allowed employers to exempt themselves from health benefits they held moral objections to, even ones beyond birth control. That amendment failed.

When serving as governor, Shaheen signed a bill into law with broad bipartisan support that required insurers to include coverage of contraceptives on any plan that covered prescription drugs. Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of Shaheen signing that bill. Beyond introducing the legislation yesterday, Shaheen’s campaign started an online petition last week that aims to “Tell Scott Brown: Women should make their health care decisions with their doctors – not their employers.”

Brown said last week he supports women’s access to health care but agrees with the Supreme Court decision because it protects religious freedom. On WKXL radio, he said his position may be “out of touch with social opinion.”

The New Hampshire Republican Party, by contrast, says that the Affordable Care Act is what truly restricts women’s access to care.

“As the deciding vote for ObamaCare, Senator Shaheen is responsible for millions of women losing their healthcare coverage,” party spokeswoman Lauren Zelt said in a statement. “Shaheen, like many other endangered Senate Democrats, is using dishonest scare tactics regarding women’s health issues to distract from her failed record and support for policies that have limited health care choices.”



Correction: A previous version of this article misstated which party controls the U.S. Senate. Democrats control the Senate and Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives. The story has also been updated to include information about Shea-Porter co-sponsoring the House bill.



(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)




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