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Democratic Leaders Spike Women’s Health Bill Over Abortion Issue

The bill would have codified Affordable Care Act protections for reproductive healthcare and brought Oregon insurance law in line with the federal government, but it divided Democrats, some of whom objected to language in the bill around abortion. The bill was stopped before it could have a public hearing.
April 10, 2015

The Democratic leadership of Oregon’s Legislature, including Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has killed a bill that would have ensured a woman’s access to abortion and blocked sponsor and Health Chairwoman Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, from even holding a public hearing, in effect silencing the debate.

Senate Bill 894 would have codified the reproductive rights for all women, including the ability to get nursing supplies, contraception and, significantly, abortion, without excessive cost-sharing. Abortions could have copayments but not a deductible; contraception could have neither. The bill would have impacted private insurance and the Oregon Health Plan.

Much of the protections in SB 894 are already included in the Affordable Care Act, but the bill would have brought Oregon insurance law in line with the federal government and increased protections for reproductive rights should President Obama’s successor be less supportive. On top of those protections, it would have allowed women to get contraceptive prescriptions that would last longer than a 30- or 60-day supply.

SB 894 seemed like a strong piece of legislation from the gate, with 9 Senate Democrats and 20 House Democrats signing on as sponsors, including both majority leaders, Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, and Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene. It had also been a top priority of the advocates at the Oregon Health Equity Alliance, a group which works to promote equality and even the playing field for people who are often at a disadvantage.

Despite this support, and despite a Democratic supermajority, the women’s comprehensive health bill went nowhere, and was killed behind the scenes in an apparent attempt to avoid public debate, possibly to protect some Democrats who were wavering on how far they would join in a debate to support a woman’s ability to get an abortion.

“Bills die for mysterious reasons. We’ve had a lot of contentious topics this year,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, who insisted all Senate Democrats still supported abortion rights. “There are no anti-abortion Democrats in the caucus. That is simply not true.”

Still, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson said that the bill would have died on the Senate floor if it had passed out of the Senate Health Committee -- which would likely have occurred on a party-line 3-2 vote. All three Health Committee Democrats -- Monnes Anderson, Steiner Hayward, and Sen. Chip Shields, D-Portland, were sponsors, as were Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis; Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland; Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland; Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin; and Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay.

Monnes Anderson said some members objected that the language about abortion be included alongside protections for contraception, pregnancy and post-partum care. Both Monnes Anderson and Steiner Hayward declined to say who opposed this part of the bill.

Monnes Anderson said the abortion language was so toxic that “leadership” -- her caucus leaders -- Courtney and Rosenbaum, would not even allow her to have a public hearing on SB 894, let alone move it to the Senate floor. She said House Democratic leaders were also involved in the discussion over whether the bill could see the light of day, while Lindsey O’Brien, the spokeswoman for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, deferred all questions to the Senate.

Rosenbaum’s spokeswoman, Molly Woon, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Monnes Anderson tried to salvage the bill or introduce a different, compromise piece of legislation, but the bill’s sponsors, including NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, did not support her efforts. In addition to the hot-button issue of abortion, the bill’s supporters did not consult the insurance industry before drafting the bill, which could have been stripped of the abortion language or been amended to include a religious exemption.

Monnes Anderson also promised it would get a public hearing later in the session -- but any hearing after this week would be purely informational, since it would be beyond strict deadlines for legislation to be voted on.

Michele Stranger-Hunter, the executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon, did not respond to questions about the bill.

The expanded contraception access issue is being addressed by House Bill 3343, which is scheduled for next week in the House Health Committee and will require that insurers and the Oregon Health Plan give women up to a year’s worth of contraceptive pills.

A separate bill in the Senate Health Committee, Senate Bill 93, lays out a framework for patients to more easily get refills without return visits to their healthcare provider, except for controlled substances. That bill is designed for chronic disease management like hypertension and high cholesterol, but Monnes Anderson said it will be amended to apply to birth control. Patients could go a year without a doctor but would return twice to the pharmacist -- after three months and after six months to help manage the medication.

The influence of religion in medical decisions like reproductive health has been on the rise in the Northwest, which became abundantly clear when the leading Roman Catholic health provider, Providence Health & Services, merged with Swedish Health Services, and the latter ceased performing elective abortions at its Seattle hospitals and clinics.

Providence’s religious opposition to abortion, contraception, tubal litigation and the death with dignity law also may have influenced Silverton Health’s decision to merge instead with Legacy Health, which has historically been Protestant