Editorial: Preserving women’s access to free birth control is crucial

Friday, October 13, 2017

It’s been about 11 years since Massachusetts lawmakers set the state on the road to near-universal health care. It provided a template for Obamacare. And now it seems our Legislature will have to defend us against the ravages of a Trump administration bent on taking health care from millions of Americans who aren’t millionaires.

House and Senate leaders are expediting a bill that would protect a women’s access to free birth control in Massachusetts after President Donald Trump earlier this month moved to expand employers’ ability to opt out of the Obamacare coverage requirement on moral grounds. Some religious groups in the state have reacted against the state bill, but don’t seem likely to derail it. Advocates of women’s right to universal free birth control coverage say Trump is forcing women to pay for their boss’s religious beliefs, and the state Legislature and governor agree with the women’s advocates. We are glad they do.

The Trump administration rolled back the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that health insurance cover oral contraception for free by expanding the ability of employers to opt out of plans due to religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Massachusetts already requires insurers cover birth control, but allows charging co-payments. This would change under the so-called ACCESS bill, filed by Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler and House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad. They would guarantee free access to oral contraception for women in Massachusetts, and mandate coverage of emergency contraception at pharmacies without a co-payment or a new prescription.

Every woman should have the option of family planning through the pill, regardless of social status or how much they earn. This may be difficult for some to appreciate, but it looks like our legislature is progressive enough to build a bulwark against the White House as it tries every way it can to sabotage affordable health care for all.

The legislation working its way across Beacon Hill would secure coverage in Massachusetts regardless of changes in federal law, and preserve access to free contraception here. The bills would also let women after their initial prescription pick up a 12-month supply of the pills at one time.

The Financial Services Committee has referred the House and Senate versions of the bill (H 536/S 499) to the Center for Health Information Analysis for financial impact review, typically sought before the state’s health care laws are changed. Its report is expected by year’s end.

Ahead of that, an industry group, Massachusetts Association of Heath Plans, and reproductive rights advocates, including Planned Parenthood, announced that they had agreed on a compromise version that allows co-pays for name brands but guarantees free generics.

Gov. Charlie Baker said last Friday that he supports the concepts of the compromise, and more generally has pledged to use state resources to offset federal funding cuts to Planned Parenthood threatened by Republicans in Congress.

A challenge to fulfilling this promise and the promise of near-universal health coverage in our state will be finding the money to pay for this. Despite that we are encouraged that here in Massachusetts, at least, the insurance industry continues to support this family- and woman-friendly policy, and that our state’s Republican governor Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito do too.