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Nevada Democrats argue for no-exceptions birth control coverage

CARSON CITY, Nev. — A pair of bills that would make Nevada the fifth state to allow women to access 12-month supplies of birth control drew hours of testimony at the Legislature on Monday.

Dozens of people attended hearings on proposals aimed at decreasing health risks and unplanned pregnancies that occur between contraceptive prescriptions, but that would also strip businesses of their ability to claim a religious objection to insuring birth control.

“I believe these services are so critical to the health care of women that all of us should have access,” Sen. Julia Ratti, D-Sparks, said.

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, said the legislation intends to allow any woman prescribed birth control to ask her pharmacist to dispense a year’s supply — even if the doctor’s note is for the current threshold of three months, or less.

“The average woman will spend five years pregnant or trying to get pregnant and nearly three decades trying to avoid pregnancy. So for birth control to be effective it needs to be consistent,” said Caroline Mello Roberson, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

State law currently allows employers to exclude birth control pills and devices from their insurance plans if they oppose those treatments on religious grounds. Removing those provisions, as Senate Bill 233 and Assembly Bill 249 propose, would force all insurers to cover contraceptives, regardless of religious objections.

Opponents argue that makes the legislation amoral and unfair to religious organizations. They defended the exemption that went hand-in-hand with Nevada’s decision in 1999 to mandate health care plans cover contraceptives.

Proponents countered that removing the religious exemption puts the health decision in the hands of women, not their employers. “Nowhere does it mandate that you have to use a contraceptive. That choice is up to the individual,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Nevada’s Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval is monitoring the bills, but “any legislation that fails to protect religious organizations’ or affiliates’ conscientious objections would possibly raise constitutional or other legal questions,” spokeswoman Mari St. Martin said in an email.

Ratti said deleting the religious exemption would be justified by a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the judicial branch, not Congress, has the power to define equal protection rights. The high court ruled in 2014 that family-owned businesses can object to providing contraceptive insurance under former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Benitez-Thompson said no businesses currently claim the religious exemption. Voice messages left with the state insurance commissioner’s office were not returned Monday.

All 38 Democratic lawmakers, who hold the majority of seats at the statehouse, have signed on to co-sponsor one of the bills.

Proponents said current law and the bills include coverage of two types of emergency contraception that can be used to prevent pregnancy within hours after intercourse. Sen. Joseph Hardy, R-Boulder City, was concerned that the bills are not explicit enough and may extend coverage to abortions.

Ratti’s bill, SB233, would also expand the services insurers must provide at no extra charge. It would make insurance, including Medicaid, cover prenatal tests; screenings for diabetes, blood pressure abnormalities and depression; all federally recommended vaccinations; and counseling for breastfeeding, domestic violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

“It really is the full range of preventive health services,” Ratti said.

Pap smears and mammograms already must be covered under Obama’s health law. Ratti’s bill would mandate that, should the federal law be changed, insurance companies still could not charge for those services.

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