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Democratic senator is challenged by GOP doctor.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has the endorsement of the Oregon Nurses Association in his second-term bid against Republican Monica Wehby, a physician from Portland.

ONA executive director Susan King said Tuesday that Merkley’s support of nurses and extending health care coverage — and his opposition to reducing access to coverage for women — earned him its endorsement.

“As nurses, we understand how important it is to ensure everyone has access to the full range of health care services,” King says. “Jeff is the only candidate in this race fighting against efforts to limit patients’ health care options and take away access to essential health care services.”

Merkley and Wehby were on opposite ends of a June 30 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. By a 5-4 vote, the justices ruled that owners of some for-profit businesses could invoke a 1993 federal law — allowing them to object on religious grounds — to decline to comply with a federal requirement for insurance coverage for some forms of birth control.

On July 16, the Senate failed to muster enough votes to proceed with a bill to reverse that decision. Merkley and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden voted with the 56 senators, including three Republicans, to proceed; 43 voted no.

“For most working families, affordability is access,” Merkley said during the Senate debate.

Wehby argued that the decision was narrow, applicable only to closely held businesses, and would not have sweeping implications.

Merkley, whose wife Mary is a nurse, also sponsored a bill to require hospitals participating in Medicare — the federal health insurance program for people 65 and older — to create safe-staffing plans that take into account the number of patients and the intensity of care they need.

“Nurses bring a strong sense of dedication and compassion to their work and it is important that they have safe work environments so they can focus on patient care,” Merkley says.

Earlier Tuesday, Wehby’s campaign again criticized Merkley for a series of votes during Senate debate on the national health-care overhaul in 2009 and 2010, known as the Affordable Care Act. The votes affected federal subsidies for Medicare Advantage, private plans (Part D) under which some Medicare recipients receive benefits, and reduced future projected spending on Medicare.

The campaigns traded similar charges earlier this month, when Merkley obtained the endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a group founded in 1982 to oppose major changes in those programs.

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