Blunt Amendment Debate Recalls Memories Of Walmart Contraception Case

Proponents of Sen. Roy Blunt's (R-Mo.) amendment to the Senate transportation bill, which would override President Obama's contraception coverage rule and allow any employer to refuse to cover any kind of health care service for religious or moral reasons, have framed the issue as one of religious freedom that is unrelated to women's health.

But Senate Democrats have raised concerns that the "religious freedom" argument is actually part of a broader attempt by social conservatives to restrict access to birth control.

"Mr. President, if this amendment passes, it would ban contraception coverage for any woman in America whose boss has a personal objection to it," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate Floor Wednesday. "This measure would force women to surrender control of their own health decisions to their bosses. That concept, it is not merely quaint or old-fashioned. It is dangerous and it is wrong."

A 2001 court case against Walmart provides a practical example of the potential consequences millions of people would face if the government allows employers to pick and choose which preventative health services they cover. Lisa Smith Mauldin, a 22-year-old customer services manager and divorced mother of two earning $12 per hour, sued Wal-Mart for sexual discrimination because it excluded contraceptives from its prescription drug plan. She said the $30 per month cost of birth control pills was a significant financial burden for her.

In September 2002, the case turned into a class action suit on behalf of all female employees at Walmart, who demanded that the company's health plan cover prescription contraceptives. The case was dismissed in December 2006, when Walmart decided to begin covering their employees' birth control.

Walmart is not the only major company that has run into legal troubles for excluding contraception coverage from its health plan. Dow Jones & Co., Bartell Drug Co., United Parcel Services (UPS) and Daimler Chrysler have all been sued in similar cases.

These major companies are now required under Title XII to cover contraception for their employees to the same extent that they cover the costs of other types of drugs. But if the Blunt amendment passes, they will be able to ignore the cost-sharing requirement of the Affordable Care Act that asks them to cover birth control at no cost for their employees, leaving women with a burdensome co-pay. They will also be able to freely deny their employees other kinds of health coverage by citing a moral objection.

"Of course, the whole point of the no cost-sharing requirement was to make sure that cost wasn't a barrier to people accessing contraception or other kinds of preventative health care," said Gretchen Borchelt, Senior Counsel for the National Women's Law Center. "Under the Affordable Care Act, women wouldn't have to pay a copay or deductible, and that can make a major difference in their lives in terms of having a little extra money at the end of the month."

Blunt said his amendment, which the Senate will vote on Thursday as part of the sweeping transportation bill, is not about the politics of women's health.

"This debate is not about any one group or one set of beliefs. The Obama Administration's mandate violates Americans' First Amendment rights. This bill includes the same conscience protection language that has been part of our law for almost 40 years, and it simply preserves and protects the fundamental religious freedom that Americans have enjoyed for more than 220 years," he said in a statement. "Any attempts to argue otherwise are simply aimed at scaring Americans."