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Bill would allow employers to exclude birth control from health insurance plans

Pictured left to right: Paige Maxwell and Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood, Tami Fitzgerald of N.C. Values Coalition, and Barbara Holt of N.C. Right to Life.

A bill allowing private employers to refuse to cover contraception in their health insurance plans cleared a House committee Wednesday morning and is headed for a vote of the full chamber.

The legislation would also prohibit coverage for abortions in the new state health insurance exchange that is part of the federal Affordable Care Act, and through the plans cities and counties offer their workers. It also says any health-care provider can refuse to participate in abortions; current law protects doctors and nurses.

The bill is off to a rocky start, as Republicans in a House judiciary committee were not unified in supporting it. Rep. Bob Steinburg, a freshman Republican from Edenton who described himself as a hardcore abortion opponent, said he would only support the bill if the prohibition on contraception coverage was removed.

“It’s almost like we’re stepping back in time,” Steinburg said. “To suggest in the 21st Century that women would be prevented from having access to birth control – even as far to the right as I am – is going off the cliff. This is going too far.”

Steinburg’s remark about stepping back in time played directly into the costume-themed protest that members of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina and other abortion-rights supporters staged. About 15 of them dressed us in “Mad Men” early-sixties attire to make the point that the GOP legislature was unwinding women’s progress in society.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jacqueline Michelle Schaffer, a Republican from Charlotte, said it wasn’t about limiting access to birth control but changing who pays for it.

An amendment to take the birth control provision out of the bill failed on a tie vote, with Republicans Steinburg, Rep. Jon Hardister of Greensboro and Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield siding with Democrats. The Greensboro News-Record reported that committee member Rep. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat from High Point, could have cast the tie-breaking vote but was in another meeting.

The committee voted 8-6 to approve the bill.

Current law allows “religious employers” to exclude coverage for contraceptives. The bill would expand that to any employer who has a religious, moral or ethical objection” to providing that coverage.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, told the committee, “It’s a matter of religious freedom, not discrimination.”


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