Bill reacts to Supreme Court ruling

Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have joined 38 Democratic colleagues to sponsor legislation to ensure some employees’ access to birth control coverage despite religious objections from their employers.

The bill would specify that employers cannot deny “a specific health care item or service” under the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurance coverage for contraceptives.

The bill, announced Wednesday, is a response to a June 30 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that closely held businesses can opt out of such coverage if their owners have religious objections.

“It’s unacceptable that the Supreme Court has put contraceptive coverage in jeopardy for millions of women, and this bill will put women back in control of their own health care,” Merkley said in a statement.

“The Supreme Court may not get it, but we do, and we’re going to keep fighting to ensure that bosses and CEOs can’t dictate health care choices that belong between a woman and her doctor.”

Critics, including Merkley, say the decision opens the way for employers to object to a broad range of services based on religious grounds of the owners.

The five-member court majority based its decision not on the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom but on its interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act over a federal regulation for insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The bill would not rewrite the 1993 law, but it would write into law the requirements for insurance coverage.

The bill’s chief sponsors are Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Colorado Sen. Mark Udall.

The bill is unlikely to advance very far in an election year. Republicans, whose official position is to oppose anything promoting the 2010 health-care overhaul, have enough votes to keep the bill from coming to a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Even if it should pass the Senate, Republicans have a majority in the House, where a companion bill was introduced.

But the bill is likely to strengthen the political hand of Democratic candidates such as Merkley, who is seeking a second term against Republican Monica Wehby, a Portland physician who has supported the Supreme Court decision.

While speaker of the Oregon House in 2007, Merkley supported a state law that requires insurance coverage for contraceptives. The chief author of that law is Diane Rosenbaum, a Democrat from Portland who was then the speaker pro tem and now the majority leader of the Oregon Senate.

Because of that law, Rosenbaum said in a conference call last week, “women in Oregon may be more protected from this damaging ruling than women in virtually any other state.”

Officials at the Oregon Insurance Division said last week they are studying what effects the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case may have on the state law.

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