Health Care

Vermont law mitigates federal change in contraception rule

WASHINGTON — A 2016 Vermont law will minimize the impact of a new Trump administration rule easing employers’ obligation to cover the cost of birth control in their health insurance plans.

The Trump administration Friday rolled back an Obama-era initiative that mandated coverage of contraception under health plans offered by most employers.

The new rule, effective immediately, broadens an exemption to allow more employers to decline to cover contraception based on religious or moral reasons.

President Donald Trump. File photo by Gage Skidmore
Opponents of the Obama-era mandate charged that it violated religious freedom.

However, the rule change sparked condemnation from many advocates and lawmakers — including members of Vermont’s delegation — who see the move as an assault on women’s health. Within hours of the publication of the new rule, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would sue to halt the change.

A spokesperson said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 120,000 women at most will be affected by the change in the rule.

“No American should be forced to violate his or her own conscience in order to abide by the laws and regulations governing our health care system,” HHS press secretary Caitlin Oakley said.

The rule changes, she said, “affirm the Trump administration’s commitment to upholding the freedoms afforded all Americans under our Constitution.”

However, Vermonters will feel less of an impact from the change because of a state law that sought to codify the Obamacare promise of access to birth control without a copay.

Under the Vermont law, signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2016, health insurance in the state is required to cover contraception without an out-of-pocket cost to the patient.

Only Vermont companies that self-insure — that is, take on the full cost of their employees’ health care rather than going through an insurer — will be able to opt out of offering contraception based on the new expanded federal exemption, according to Robin Lunge, a member of the Green Mountain Care Board.

Robin Lunge
Robin Lunge. File photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger
Lunge estimates that between 75,000 and 100,000 Vermonters receive health care through an employer self-insured model that would be eligible to take advantage of the new contraception exemption.

Whether companies will opt to do so remains up in the air, she said. Surveys find that Vermont tends to have one of the least religious populations in the country, so there may be fewer employers interested in taking advantage of the exemption, she said.

“Realistically, I wouldn’t expect there to be a high number of employees actually impacted,” Lunge said.

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England came out with a statement opposing the new Trump rule last week.

Lucy Leriche, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of public policy for Vermont, said the 2016 state law mitigates the potential effect of the Trump administration rule in Vermont.

But the organization can’t say that 100 percent of Vermont women are immune from losing their birth control coverage, Leriche said.

She said the contraception coverage rule change is one of many initiatives under the Trump administration that would limit access to birth control and other services.

“It is feeling like a war against women,” Leriche said.

Leriche mentioned repeated efforts in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Many proposals offered during the process would eliminate federal funding to Planned Parenthood because the organization offers abortions.

“This has been the worst administration for women’s rights and women’s reproductive freedoms maybe ever — probably ever,” she said.

Leriche responded to proponents of the Trump rule change who argue that requiring employers to cover birth control violated religious freedoms.

“The oppression of women is not a religious right,” Leriche said.

Mary Hahn Beerworth of Vermont Right to Life said the group does not take a position on contraception.

She would like to see an insurance option available in Vermont that does not cover abortion. More than the change in the contraception rule, Beerworth said she is following legislation that passed the U.S. House that would ban abortions more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy.

The Trump administration’s announcement drew polarized reactions from members of Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., celebrated the rule change.

“This is a landmark day for religious liberty,” he said in a statement Friday. “Under the Obama administration, this constitutional right was seriously eroded.”

Meanwhile, those on the left, including Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., came out strongly against the change, characterizing it as an assault on women’s rights.

“A woman’s health care should never be subject to the whims of her employer’s religious beliefs,” Welch said. “It’s offensive and discriminatory to empower an employer to pick and choose which health care services women will receive.”

He added that he was hopeful the new rule would be overturned by the courts.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., reacted to the administration’s announcement on Twitter, charging that the move is “nothing less than sexism.”

“It is the latest display of Republicans’ total disdain for women’s ability to control their own lives,” he said.

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Elizabeth Hewitt

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