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Advocates celebrate birth control coverage bill

for the Mail Tribune

SALEM — Planned Parenthood activists from Jackson County hailed the House passage Thursday of a bill to require health insurance plans that offer prescription drug coverage to include contraceptives.

"We've been working 14 years for contraceptive equity," said Paul Robinson, community relations director for Planned Parenthood Health Services of Southwestern Oregon. Right now, he said, women can spend up to $600 or more annually for contraceptives without help from insurance coverage.

The retired Medford Congregational United Church of Christ minister was one of 20 Jackson County residents who traveled by chartered bus to watch the debate and lopsided vote on the House floor. The measure, which passed 49-9, now goes to the Senate.

Reps. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sal Esquivel and George Gilman, Republicans from Medford, voted for House Bill 2700. Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, was the delegation's only no.

Erin Wolford of Ashland said she was not surprised the measure passed, "but I was thrilled by the margin." She called the bill "a very thoughtful approach in providing protection for women."

Paul Bauer of Medford, a member of the Planned Parenthood legislative action team, said adding prescription coverage for contraceptives "is a step for all women in Oregon into the mainstream of health care."

Advocates said half of all insurance plans in Oregon don't cover prescription birth control.

The bill would require Oregon hospitals to inform victims of sexual assault about emergency contraception, such as the "morning-after pill," and dispense the pill if women ask for it. If taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, such a pill can significantly decrease the chances that a woman will get pregnant.

"If the victim asks for it, hospitals have to provide it," said Robinson, who retired from the ministry in 2004.

About 300 Planned Parenthood and abortion rights activists rallied on the steps of the Capitol following the vote. Among those addressing the enthusiastic crowd was House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, who said electing Democrats was the reason this bill happened.

Opponents of the bill include private insurers, which typically try to fend off government requirements, and some religious groups, such as the Catholic Conference. The bill contains an exemption for religious employers that provide health benefits.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at jepsen34@open.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.