It's getting scary.
Cut in Birth Control Benefit Of Federal Workers Sought
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2001; Page A29
President Bush has proposed dropping a requirement that all health insurance programs for federal employees cover a broad range of birth control, angering women's groups and lawmakers from both parties who support contraceptive benefits not only for federal workers, but for all employees.
It is just one paragraph of fine print in the 1,296-page budget appendix, but it would end required coverage for 1.2 million female employees and their dependents who are served by the federal employees health benefits plan (FEHBP).
Most female federal employees would get coverage for at least one form of birth control, according to government officials, but the move sends a message of support to social conservative groups that do not believe the federal government should be in the business of making contraceptives available at all.
"I was shocked -- shocked and disappointed," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), author of the 1998 provision that gave women the benefit. "There's no compassion in this decision. It's calculated to please a small, but key, group of supporters who helped elect George W. Bush."
Lowey and Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), vowed to fight to keep the provision, which requires all 250 health plans serving federal employees to offer to pay for five types of birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration: the pill, the intrauterine device (IUD), Norplant, Depo-Provera and the diaphragm. Snowe has sponsored a bill that would require all health plans to offer contraceptive coverage to all their customers.
Contraception is just one of a host of benefits the government offers its 8.7 million workers and retirees, as well as their spouses and children. Through FEHBP, they have access to everything from baby check-ups to drugs for combating heart disease.
But the health plans are free to offer a variety of benefits of their own choosing. Some offer acupuncture; others chiropractic services. Some offer Viagra. Before Lowey's amendment, some plans would pay for only one type of birth control, such as the pill, but not others, such as the IUD.
Social conservatives cheered Bush's move. "We're quite pleased because fertility is not a disease," said Susan Orr, senior director for marriage and families at the Family Research Council. "It's not a medical necessity that you have it."
Orr said she heard about the proposed change on Monday at a Department of Health and Human Services budget briefing for local conservative groups. "This is one of the things that they were happy to tell us about," she said, later adding that she was not sure if the person relaying the news was an HHS employee. "They were talking about 'things that will please you.' "
Michael Schwartz, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America, said it will be interesting to see whether the proposal stands. "It's one thing to put an item in the budget, and another thing to see it passed."
In 1999, for example, a bipartisan coalition defeated efforts to remove the contraceptive coverage language.
According to an official with the Office of Personnel Management, the 1998 mandate has not imposed additional costs. On average, the government pays 72 percent of an employee's premium and the employee picks up the rest. "The costs in the program are designed to be covered by the premium," the official said. "There is no differential premium for a woman."
Lowey's 1998 amendment allowed an exemption for health plans that are run by organizations that do not want to provide contraceptive coverage because of religious or moral beliefs.
"I have every reason to believe that contraceptive coverage will still be widely available in the federal employee health benefits program," the OPM official said. "I don't think [the proposal] will change the landscape that much."
Nonetheless, news of the proposed deletion upset unions and women's groups.
"It's extremely discriminatory," said Andrea Brooks, director of the women's and fair practices department at the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 workers. "I think it will energize our members."
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said the move demonstrates how "extreme" Bush's views are on a woman's right to choose. "This goes far beyond abortion," she said. "This is simply another manifestation of President Bush's hostility to the reproductive rights of women."