Contraceptive access abysmal in Montana 

Montana has earned yet another dubious honor in the last-place department, this time for failing to promote access to contraceptives through state and private employer-benefits coverage.

A new study by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action ranks Montana 51st in the nation for repeatedly refusing to force insurers to cover expenses for prescription contraceptive drugs and devices.

“Women pay 68 percent more in out-of-pocket expense than men, with reproductive health care costs accounting for much of that difference,” says Stacey Anderson, executive director of NARAL’s Montana affiliate. “When preventative care, including birth control, is covered by insurance, everyone benefits.”

A bill in the 1999 Legislature to mandate the coverage was attacked by the insurance industry and died in committee. The proposal was resurrected in the 2001 Legislature, where lawmakers were warned that failure to approve the measure would put the state in violation of a landmark U.S. Equal Employment Organization Commission (EEOC) decision. Unfazed legislative leaders, pressured by anti-abortion forces, again killed the bill.

In late 2000, the EEOC ruled that an employer’s failure to provide coverage for prescription contraceptives when it covers other preventative drugs and devices is unlawful sex discrimination under federal law. A federal court decision earlier this year in Seattle, the first in the nation, backed up the commission’s findings.

Many anti-abortion activists contend that contraceptives cause abortions because they prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus. The American Life League, one of the more radical of these groups, ranks several contraceptives, including the IUD, with so-called “morning after” medications and other drugs designed to end pregnancies in their initial stages, even though contraceptives are designed to prevent pregnancies in the first place.

The NARAL study found that despite legal mandates from the federal government, only 17 states have laws or regulations requiring equitable insurance coverage for contraceptives, up from just one state three years ago. Thirty-one states, including Montana and the District of Columbia, received an “F” grade for failing to improve contraceptive access.

The study shows that Montana landed at the bottom of the pile in part because state employees aren’t covered for contraceptives in their insurance plan. But that’s changing, says John McEwen, head of the State Personnel Division.

“We’ve added prescription-based contraceptives as a covered item as of Jan. 1, 2002,” he says, adding that the move is in response to the EEOC decision, as well as a desire to keep the 14,000 state employees and retirees on the plan satisfied with their benefits. Private insurers are not affected by the change.

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