Democrats say state can protect women’s contraceptive coverage

Is there a way for Washington's Legislature to assure contraceptive-related insurance coverage to women employees despite the U. S. Supreme Court's 2014 Hobby Lobby ruling that for-profit corporations can refuse to pay for birth control on religious grounds?

Gov. Jay Inslee and several Washington state Democratic senators say they do have a way. In Seattle on Thursday, they unveiled plans for a 2015 bill to require such coverage through the state's equal rights and employee rights laws.

And, despite their denials that this is a campaign issue, Inslee and the senators snuck in obviously campaign-oriented remarks against moderate Republican senators who have voted with their caucus' conservative wing to stop similar legislation. Although the November election is less than a month away, the Democratic senators said their announcement is tied to the Friday opening of a Hobby Lobby store on North Aurora Avenue. There is picketing scheduled for the whole day to object to the corporation's stance on contraception coverage.

"The freedom of choice in contraception is jeopardized," Inslee said. He added, "There's a conscious, willful and premeditated attempt to take away these women's rights."

The four senators joining Inslee in north Seattle were Karen Keiser, D-Kent, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, David Frockt, D-Seattle, and Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. Keiser said work on a bill to counter the Hobbly Lobby ruling bill began in June and much more effort is needed before a bill is ready.

Inslee and the senators said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling's narrow focus gives Washington potential paths around it. The Hobby Lobby ruling declared that closely held for-profit corporations are exempt from a law that its owners religiously object to if there are less restrictive means of furthering the law's interest. The Hobby Lobby case focused on the corporation's rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says limits what federal law can do to put a significant burden on a person's freedom of religion. Part of this case is based on a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a corporation can be considered a person.

Hobby Lobby's stance in the lawsuit was that a federal mandate was forcing it to provide four potentially life-terminating drugs against the religious convictions of its owners, according to a web site the corporation created.

The Democrats' planned bill will attempt to apply Washington's equal rights and employee rights laws, making access to a full range of contraceptives a matter of basic human rights. This push's goal is to require corporations that provide health insurance coverage to include all contraceptives, or those companies must otherwise choose not to provide any insurance coverage. If a corporation chooses not to provide insurance coverage, it must pay a fee to the federal government that would be routed to support state health insurance exchanges. The companies would lose tax breaks.

Phone messages left at Hobby Lobby's corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City were not returned Thursday afternoon.

Inslee and the senators disputed a suggestion that their hope of working around the U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be similar to talk among state Senate Republicans about wanting to defy a Washington Supreme Court ruling on school funding. The introduction of the state' equal rights and employee rights laws creates a different situation, they argued.

Election politics crept in with Inslee and the four senators pointing to the alliance of 24 Republicans two Democrats  — dubbed the Majority Coalition Caucus — that controls the Washington Senate 26-23, saying that majority will stop their proposed bill unless changes are made. They singled out Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who is in a somewhat close race in the 45th District east of Lake Washington. The Democrats' chances of regaining the majority could depend in large part on winning that race.

Hill is considered a moderate Republican, especially on social issues. However, the four Democrat senators pointed out that Hill did not vote in 2013 for the Reproductive Parity Act, which would require health plans that cover maternity care to also cover abortions. The Majority Coalition Caucus unanimously defeated the minority Democrats' attempt to bring the Reproductive Parity Act to a full floor vote in 2013 in hopes of capturing enough moderate Republican votes to pass it. But that attempt was a "procedural vote." A strong unwritten rule in the Legislature is that caucus members are expected to vote the party line in procedural matters. That custom is a way for the majority caucus leaders to prevent the minority caucus from splitting off majority party members to possibly win a full-fledged floor vote. 

The practical effect was that a procedural 2103 vote against bringing the Reproductive Parity Act to a full floor vote equaled a vote against the bill itself. In 2014, the Majority Coalition Caucus killed the Reproductive Parity Act behind the scenes without the Democrats attempting a public procedural vote.

Keiser, Ranker, Kohl-Welles and Frockt said that if Hill wants to be considered a moderate, he needs to break with the majority coalition on this matter.

In a written statement, Hill said, "The proposal offered by my colleagues this morning sounds like a reasonable proposal. I am a firm supporter of family planning and women’s health and look forward to working more on it in the upcoming session." His statement did not address the potential of splitting from his caucus on this matter.

Hill's statement continued: "My history of support for family planning and women’s health goes back to 2011 when I voted to enhance family planning support and my initial 2013 budget put more money into family planning than the Democrat’s House budget. Additionally, when the Affordable Care Act was implemented in 2013, a number of women in poverty were precluded from breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment. I worked closely with Rep. [Ross] Hunter [D-Medina] in the House, the American Cancer Society and Planned Parenthood to make sure that our 2014 budget restored coverage for this vulnerable population."

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