Sen. Patty Murray rolls out women’s health bill

WASHINGTON — Eight months after her failed attempt to override a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on contraceptive coverage, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray on Thursday rolled out her latest proposal to protect women’s access to reproductive-health services.

The Washington Democrat’s wide-ranging bill would mandate state Medicaid programs to provide full coverage for all forms of birth control, require hospitals and clinics to provide free emergency contraception to patients who have been sexually assaulted and order a study of how states are enacting laws to restrict access to abortions and other family-planning services.

The name of the bill, The 21st Century Women’s Health Act, takes aim at laws Murray says will take the country backward and at elected officials she says “are dead set on interfering with personal decisions that should be made between a woman, her doctor and her partner.”

The legislation, which Murray described during a conference call with reporters, has two Democratic co-sponsors: Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Barbara Boxer of California, both of whom will retire at the end of the current Congress in January 2017.

Most Read Stories

Also on the call were Dana Singiser, vice president for public policy with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Dr. Laurel Kuehl, a Seattle family physician and Washington medical director for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.

Last July, an outraged Murray co-sponsored a fast-track bill to overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court nine days earlier in a case involving Hobby Lobby and another Christian family-owned company. The justices agreed that the employers could not be compelled to provide free contraceptive coverage as required under the federal Affordable Care Act if it violated their religious beliefs.

The bill Murray unveiled Thursday does not resurrect that issue, which concerned insurance offered by private employers. Instead, the new bill focuses largely on expanding access to reproductive-health services to women who rely on public insurance or low-cost clinics.

Murray linked reproductive freedom with economic autonomy, noting that family incomes have grown in tandem with the rising number of women in the workforce.

Enabling Americans to choose when and if they will have children “is not only good for our women, it’s good for our country,” Murray said.

Kuehl, a family doctor for nearly 20 years, echoed that. She said effective forms of birth control, including options like IUDs and implants, should be made available to all women, including those on Medicaid.

“Access to reliable contraception is a health issue, as well as an economic issue for women and their families,” Kuehl said.

Murray’s bill also calls for creating training programs for women’s health nurse practitioners and a “women’s health ombudsperson” to help enforce rights to services, including federal requirements that insurance plans cover preventive care such as mammograms, breast-feeding counseling and domestic-violence screening with no copays and no coinsurance.

Washington’s Medicaid program, which is funded by federal and state tax dollars, already covers contraceptives, including emergency contraceptives such as Plan B.

Unintended pregnancies cost state and federal governments an estimated $21 billion in 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and public-education group. Taxpayers footed the bill for half the 4 million babies born that year, including 68 percent of unplanned births.

Washington ranks behind only California as a best state for reproductive rights, according to the 2015 report by the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. Last year, however, Indiana, Oklahoma and 14 other states enacted laws curbing reproductive choices. Missouri, for instance, imposed a 72-hour wait for abortions and Georgia banned abortion coverage for public employees.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Twitter @KyungMSong