Amid Obamacare and Planned Parenthood Uncertainty, Some States Scramble to Protect Women's Health

Democratic lawmakers are trying to make sure women have affordable access to birth control and abortion -- regardless of what Congress and the Trump administration does.
by | February 6, 2017
Republican leaders of Congress have pledged to defund Planned Parenthood. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

With a banner behind her that read "Protecting Women’s Health," it was obvious what Connecticut state Sen. Mae Flexer wanted to discuss during a press conference last month.

Flexer and a group of Democratic lawmakers were unveiling a package of bills designed to safeguard some of the women's health provisions set in place by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) -- provisions that could soon be eliminated if Congressional Republicans dismantle the law.

The ACA has been a boon for women. It mandated insurers to fully cover preventative care, prenatal care and at least some form of birth control. The law also made it illegal for women to be charged higher premiums than men, simply based on their gender. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that one in three women gained access to preventative services under the ACA.

“People have gotten used to these protections, and quite frankly they save us money,” said Flexer.

A 2012 study by the Brookings Institution found that expanding access to contraception can save around $1 billion in taxpayer dollars by preventing unwanted pregnancies.

President Donald Trump vowed to repeal and replace Obamacare but hasn’t said whether or not he favors keeping the women's health protections. But many Republicans, who hold control of both chambers of Congress, have expressed opposition to the law's birth control mandate. Last month, Republican Congressmembers shot down an amendment that would have codified the women's health provisions in the event of an ACA repeal. Republican leaders have also already pledged to defund Planned Parenthood, which offers abortions among its many other women's health services.

In the meantime, Democratic state lawmakers across the country are scrambling to make sure that even if the law is repealed or Planned Parenthood is defunded, women in their state will continue to have access to free contraception and abortion. Bills have already been filed in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Oregon.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a leader in the fight against many of Trump's policies, announced last month that New York will make insurers cover contraception and “medically necessary” abortions, as defined by the doctor.

But Kevin Cahill, a New York state assemblymember, said the governor's actions aren't enough and hurt the chances of his more comprehensive bill from passing.

“This takes a great deal of pressure off the Senate, which is GOP lead," he said. "They might say they don’t have to pass the bill because of the governor, but it’s more necessary than ever. Every aspect of this law is under attack."

On top of what Cuomo ordered, Cahill's legislation would also mandate coverage of emergency contraception, like the Plan B pill, and male vasectomies.

Across the country, in Oregon, a retired nurse-turned-lawmaker pre-filed the Reproductive Health Equity Act in January before her state's legislative session even started.

“We are living in a world of unknowns," said Democratic state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson. "We want to be proactive."

Monnes Anderson's bill would require insurance companies to fully cover birth control, breastfeeding support and abortion.

The abortion part, she admits, may make some lawmakers hesitant.

“We have a Democratic majority, but that doesn’t mean that all Democrats will want the bill as it stands," she said. "We’ll have to work at it."

As for the states with Republican governors and legislatures, which is most of them, similar legislation is unlikely to gain traction. That could leave millions of women with a choice: pay more for birth control or forego it altogether.