Backers of Arizona contraception bill struggling to get enough Senate votes - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Backers of Arizona contraception bill struggling to get enough Senate votes

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Posted: Thursday, April 5, 2012 6:06 pm | Updated: 10:31 am, Tue Sep 11, 2012.

Arizona employers are not going to get to use their religious beliefs to deny contraceptive coverage to their workers.

Backers of a broad exemption admitted Thursday they have not been able to line up the necessary Senate votes for HB 2625 as it was approved by the House. And time is running out, with lawmakers hoping to wrap up their session within weeks.

So Ron Johnson, lobbyist for the Arizona Catholic Conference, said he and other supporters of a change in the law are willing to talk a deal.

A 2002 law requires employers whose insurance for workers includes prescriptions to also provide coverage for contraceptives.

The statute has an exception for churches themselves.

Also exempt are certain church-run charities and services. But to get that exemption, they have to hire and serve mainly people of their own faith.

The measure being advanced by Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, would have allowed any company to claim a religious exemption. She said there is no reason that an employer should have to fund something totally at odds with his or her own beliefs.

Lesko did add language which said a worker who needs contraceptives -- essentially hormones -- for some purpose other than preventing pregnancy could purchase it with her own money and then seek reimbursement. And she agreed to spell out that health information would be given only to the insurance company and not the employer.

Still, the measure came up two votes short of the 16 necessary for Senate approval.

Johnson said the plan right now is to widen that exception -- but only a bit.

"The definition right now is so narrow,'' Johnson said, to the point where it really only allows churches themselves to refuse to fund contraceptives for employees.

The new version would expand that a bit to church-run organizations, regardless of whether their employees or clients are of the same faith. Johnson said that is designed primarily for church-run hospitals and charities like St. Vincent de Paul Society.

"Religious organizations like that certainly deserve to be covered,'' he said.

One hurdle remains for Lesko to push the new version through the Senate: trust.

Because the Senate defeated the House-passed measure, resurrecting it would require a new vote. And that vote would have to be on language creating the broad exemption, the one that a majority of senators oppose.

That will require Lesko to promise -- and several senators to believe -- that she will not then have the bill given final House approval and sent to the governor but instead have it referred to a conference committee to make the promised changes.

Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, said he thinks a few of his colleagues will go along. But McComish, one of the votes against the bill, said he will not be among them.

McComish said, though, he will support the bill for a final vote if it comes back from the conference committee as promised.

That's also the assessment of Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale.

"I could live with that,'' she said of the proffered deal. "These are truly religious operations.''

But Reagan said she remains a "no'' vote on the bill until it comes back with the acceptable language.

The agreement to back down is the second defeat for supporters of a religious exemption for contraceptive coverage.

The federal Affordable Health Care Act has a mandate for employers to provide coverage for contraceptives, similar to what already exists in Arizona law. An attempt by some Republican members of Congress to overturn that provision failed earlier this year.

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