Moderated by Tom Sabulis
A university professor makes the following argument: Georgia law requires insurance plans that offer prescriptions to include contraceptives. The new Affordable Health Care Act requires all plans to include prescriptions. Thus, some religious institutions’ coverage must provide birth-control drugs they find objectionable. Health care advocates argue that contraceptive equity is important for women, and that it’s a medical — not religious — issue.
Commenting is open below Leola Reis’ column.
By Joseph M. Knippenberg
Georgia’s legislators ought to confront the fact that our churches and other religious institutions are at the moment less free to act conscientiously than most of their counterparts across the country.
The reason? For more than a decade, Georgia law has required all health insurance plans that offer prescriptions to include contraceptives in their coverage. With the advent of Obamacare, every plan in the country has to offer prescription coverage. Thus every Georgia plan will have to offer contraceptives, including the abortifacients — drugs such as Plan B and Ella — to which many religious people object.
Because the Obama Administration hasn’t affirmatively stated that its insurance regulations will supersede more stringent state policies, the currently rather stingy federal exemptions for houses of worship, and the promise of a more generous policy later in the year, won’t necessarily avail Georgia’s religious groups unless — like the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta — they self-insure.
Our churches, temples and mosques may well continue to be subject to more stringent requirements than those currently found in the laws of Massachusetts, New York and California, all of which offer exemptions of one sort or another to religious institutions.
To be sure, the Obama Administration says that it will not permit states to be more generous in accommodating conscientious objections than it proposes to be — so, should its proposals stand, the most generous states will have to fall in line. But regulations in less generous states, like Georgia, might well be left alone.
Isn’t it ironic that our Bible Belt state, with a Republican leadership that has eagerly embraced opportunities to challenge the mandates of the Affordable Care Act, has left its own even more stringent mandate in place?
The easiest thing for legislators who care about religious liberty to do, is to change Georgia’s law. They could simply drop Georgia’s mandate altogether, since it’s superseded by the Affordable Care Act. In that case, our churches, temples and mosques would be subject to the tender mercies of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, perhaps ultimately corrected by federal courts.
The advantage of this approach is that it puts opponents in a difficult position, having to argue that the authors and enforcers of the Affordable Care Act — for the most part their political allies, in other words — were too generous in accommodating religion. What’s more, they would also have to be both for and against national standards in health care provision.
The other alternative is for our legislators to assert the traditional role of states and carve out a more generous exemption for employers who object to providing this coverage.
I think that the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ultimately favor the challengers, and that Georgia would be in very good company on the winning side. But in the short term, I’d settle for extending to my fellow Georgians the same conscientious exemptions that most Americans already enjoy.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is professor of politics at Oglethorpe University.
By Leola Reis
Georgia was the second state in the nation to mandate prescriptive equity in 1999 and has since been joined by 27 additional states. It requires that any insurance company that provides prescriptive coverage also include prescriptive contraceptives. This proud health care legacy was reinforced by the Affordable Care Act passed in August 2012, which meant women with insurance were no longer required to pay co-pays for birth control. Greater access to preventive care will go a long way to improving the overall health of the women in Georgia and around the country.
Family planning, like cancer screenings and birth control, are basic health care for women. Birth control access and information help to reduce abortions. Further, access to birth control and emergency contraception is a critical health and economic concern for American women. Prior to prescriptive equity legislation, women paid significantly more out-of-pocket for prescriptions than men.
The birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act made contraceptives available with no co-pays for many women with insurance. When women have access to a contraceptive that works best for them, they are less likely to face an unintended pregnancy. And access to emergency contraception, which prevents pregnancy following unprotected sex and does not cause an abortion, will further help women to reach their education, career and family goals.
In September 2012, the Guttmacher Institute released findings that showed what we at Planned Parenthood have always known: that women use birth control to achieve their ambitions and plan for when they are ready to be a parent. Participants in the survey said they wanted to support themselves financially, complete their education, or get a job and used birth control to accomplish these goals.
Virtually all sexually active women in the U.S. report using contraception at some point in their lives. The average number of children in an American family is two. This means that most women spend much of their adult reproductive life trying to avoid pregnancy.
Access to birth control is a medical issue, not a political or religious one. The Guttmacher Institute released a report in April 2011 indicating that birth control use and religious beliefs are not incompatible. Sexually active women who do not want to become pregnant use birth control, and the study showed this to be true of evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics, despite the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraceptives. Clearly, what women and families do is not a reflection of religious anti-birth control doctrine.
The independent Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that insurance companies cover birth control just like any other preventive prescription. It is good sense and good medicine. And a health care policy of which Georgia can be proud.
Leola Reis is vice president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood Southeast.