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House passes reproductive health care bill

PORTLAND — The Oregon House has advanced a $10 million reproductive health care bill that would require all insurance companies across the state to cover abortions and a variety of other reproductive services at no cost to the patient — regardless of income, insurance type, citizenship status or gender identity.

The bill, dubbed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, now heads to the Senate after passing the House in a 33-23 vote Saturday — one of the last major contentious policies the Democratic majority is trying to get done before the 2017 legislative session ends in 10 days.

The bill would also allocate almost $500,000 during the 2017-19 budget period to expand cost-free reproductive health coverage, including abortions, to immigrants who are otherwise ineligible for insurance under the Oregon Health Plan — the state's Medicaid program that currently spends nearly $2 million a year to pay for roughly 3,500 abortions statewide.

Other services that must be covered include birth control, vasectomies, prenatal and post-partum care, counseling for domestic abuse victims as well as screenings for cervical and breast cancer and sexually transmitted diseases. Insurers would be prohibited from shifting costs of those mandates to enrollees' deductibles, coinsurance or copayments, although the bill offers some religious-based exemptions as well.

"When people are healthy, they're able to work, able to care for their families and are spending less money on emergency services," said Democratic Rep. Jeff Barker, one of the bill's chief sponsors and a retired police officer. "This benefits them individually, but it also benefits the economies of our local communities ... with less crime, less violence and less turmoil."

Oregon already has among the most liberal abortion laws in the nation, which are absent of otherwise common requirements for waiting periods or spending limits on taxpayer funds, among others. The bill was drafted in early March as way to strengthen those existing policies largely in response to GOP leaders' earliest attempts in Congress to repeal former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, which includes minimum coverage requirements for birth control and other reproductive services.

Up until this past week, Oregon House Bill 3391's momentum had stalled. It was one of several progressive policies that Democrats placed on hold as negotiations with Republicans over other unrelated matters remained fragile.

The proposal also faced push-back from Providence, a Catholic-sponsored organization that operates eight local hospitals and currently covers 260,000 Oregonians. Providence had threatened to pull out of the Oregon insurance market, saying the bill's religious exemptions didn't go far enough.

The latest version approved Saturday was adjusted accordingly. But House Republicans argued the religious exemption is still too narrow and almost exclusively applies to churches and religious nonprofits.

"If an Oregon employer chooses not to provide abortion coverage, that does not mean an Oregon worker is going to be denied access to reproductive care," said Rep. Jodi Hack, a freshman Republican lawmaker. "Nothing prevents an Oregonian from seeking additional coverage if they feel the coverage options provided by their employer are inadequate."